January 30, 2023

Beijing — China has announced its first population decline in decades as what has been the world’s most populous nation ages and its birthrate plunges, posing new challenges for the slowing economy.

The National Bureau of Statistics reported Tuesday that the country had 850,000 fewer people at the end of 2022 than the previous year. The tally includes only the population of mainland China, excluding Hong Kong and Macao as well as foreign residents.

That left a total of 1.41 billion people, with 9.56 million births against 10.41 million deaths last year, the bureau said at a briefing on Tuesday.

Men outnumbered women by 722.06 million to 689.69 million, a result of the strict one-child policy that only officially ended in 2016 and a traditional preference for male offspring to carry on the family name.

Since abandoning the policy, China has sought to encourage families to have second or even third children, with little success, reflecting attitudes in much of east Asia where birth rates have fallen precipitously. In China, the expense of raising children in cities is often cited as a cause.

China has long been the world’s most populous nation, but is expected to soon be overtaken by India, if it hasn’t already been. Estimates put India’s population at more than 1.4 billion and continuing to grow.

The last time China is believed to have recorded a population decline was during the Great Leap Forward launched at the end of the 1950s, under then-leader Mao Zedong’s disastrous drive for collective farming and industrialization that produced a massive famine killing tens of millions of people.

China’s population has begun to decline 9-10 years earlier than Chinese officials predicted and the United Nations projected, said Yi Fuxian, a demographer and expert on Chinese population trends at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

That means China’s “real demographic crisis is beyond imagination and that all of China’s past economic, social, defense, and foreign policies were based on faulty demographic data,” Yi told The Associated Press.

Yi said that, based on his own research, China’s population has actually been declining since 2018, showing the population crisis is “much more severe” than previously thought. China now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, comparable only to Taiwan and South Korea, he added.

China’s looming economic crisis will be worse than Japan’s, where years of low growth have been blamed in part on a shrinking population, Yi said.

“China has become older before it has become rich,” Yi said.

China’s statistics bureau said the working-age population between 16 and 59 years old totaled 875.56 million, accounting for 62% of the national population, while those aged 65 and older totaled 209.78 million, accounting for 14.9% of the total.

The statistics also showed increasing urbanization in a country that traditionally had been largely rural. Over 2022, the permanent urban population increased by 6.46 million to 920.71 million, or 65.22%, while the rural population fell by 7.31 million.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the population figures have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak that was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan before spreading around the world. China has been accused by some specialists of underreporting deaths from the virus by blaming them on underlying conditions, but no estimates of the actual number have been published.

The United Nations estimated last year that the world’s population reached 8 billion on Nov. 15 and that India will replace China as the world’s most populous nation in 2023. India’s last census was scheduled for 2022 but was postponed amid the pandemic.

In a report released on World Population Day, the U.N. also said global population growth fell below 1% in 2020 for the first time since 1950.

Also Tuesday, the bureau released data showing China’s economic growth fell to its second-lowest level in at least four decades last year under pressure from anti-virus controls and a real estate slump.

The world’s No. 2 economy grew by 3% in 2022, less than half the previous year’s 8.1%, the data showed.

That was the second-lowest annual rate since at least the 1970s, after the drop to 2.4% in 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, although activity is reviving after restrictions that kept millions of people at home and sparked protests were lifted.

If handled correctly, a declining population doesn’t necessarily predict a weaker economy, said Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor of social science at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

“It’s a big psychological issue. Probably the biggest,” Gietel-Basten said.

China, he said, has been adapting to a demographic change for years by devising policies to move its economic activities up the value chain of innovation, pointing to the development of semiconductor manufacturing and its financial services industry.

“The population of India is much younger and is growing. But there are many reasons why you wouldn’t necessarily automatically bet your entire fortune on India surpassing China economically in the very near future,” he said.

Among India’s many challenges is a level of female participation in the work force that is much lower than China’s, Gietel-Basten added.

“Whatever the population you have, it’s not what you’ve got but it’s what you do with it … to a degree,” he said.

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