Jan 17 (Al Jazeera) – China’s population has decreased for the first time in more than 60 years, official data shows — a historic turn for the world’s most populous nation that is now expected to see a long period of population decline.
The country of 1.4 billion has seen birth rates plunge to record lows as its workforce ages, a drop that analysts warn could stymie economic growth and pile pressure on the country’s strained public finances.
“By the end of 2022, the national population was 1,411.75 million,” Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics said on Tuesday, adding it was a “decrease of 0.85 million over that at the end of 2021”.
This marks the first fall in China’s population since 1961, when the country battled the worst famine in its modern history, caused by Mao Zedong’s disastrous agricultural policy known as the Great Leap Forward.
Though China ended its strict “one-child policy” in 2016 and in 2021 allowed couples to have three children, the policy change has not reversed the demographic decline.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said China has tried many initiatives to avoid a “demographic crisis”, including dropping the one-child policy and increasing parental leave as well as subsidies. However, such efforts do not appear to have worked.
“If we delve further into the figures it says that China’s birth rate was 6.77 births per 1,000 people and its death rate has climbed to the highest that it’s ever been as well,” she said.
While “health authorities have been scratching their heads” and asking why people are having fewer children, Yu said major reasons appear to involve both the rising costs of living in Chinese cities and the COVID-19 pandemic response.
“I think one of the reasons is the soaring cost of living here in China, especially in the cities when it comes to housing, when it comes to education, people are delaying marriage or choosing not to get married or not to have children at all,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic was also a significant factor as China has just emerged from a three-year, strict “zero-COVID” policy that involved “huge uncertainty” and disruption to people’s lives. People were choosing not to have children or expand their families during that time, Yu said.
The economic effect of a declining population is also a prime concern for China, as for decades the country’s large working-age population — almost 70 percent of people in 2010 — was the engine behind growth in the economy.
“Now that working age is shrinking and the number of elderly people in China, that is growing … Many experts are concerned that what this ultimately means is that China has failed to become rich before it’s gotten old,” Yu said.