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China's Birthrate Drops, As Census Data Warn Of Aging Population

Workers in China collect demographic data in the the seventh population census on Nov. 1, 2020.
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Workers in China collect demographic data in the the seventh population census on Nov. 1, 2020.

China soon won't be the world's most populous country.

The government released data Tuesday from a once-a-decade census conducted late last year that shows population growth has slowed to a crawl. Meanwhile, the proportion of senior citizens in China has expanded, the cohort of working-age people is contracting, and births are down.

The data casts a fresh spotlight on one of the ruling Communist Party's biggest long-term socio-economic challenges as it turns 100 this year: How to keep the economy humming and incomes rising while the population shrinks and ages.

The proportion of people 15-59 years of age made up about two thirds of the population, but dropped by about 7 percentage points from 2010, while that of people aged 60 or older rose by more than 5 percentage points. That means fewer workers will be supporting more retirees in the years to come.

"The aging of the population has further deepened, and in the coming period [we will] continue to face pressure for the long-term, balanced development of the population," Ning Jizhe, head of China's statistics office, said at a news conference Tuesday in Beijing.

The census showed that in 2020, China's population reached 1.412 billion people. That's an increase of about 72 million — more than the population of France — since the last census a decade earlier. The tally excludes Hong Kong and Macau.

Still, the average annual rate of increase was about 0.53%, which marked a deceleration from the rate during the decade leading up to the 2010 census.

Decades of stellar economic growth have been underpinned by favorable demographics in China. But the calculus is changing, and China's average income remains relatively low.

Ning said the population would eventually peak, but it was unclear precisely when. Some demographers think it will happen in the next few years, and India will almost certainly take up the mantle of world's most populous country well before China conducts its next census in 2030.

"We are really seeing both a domestic and global shift in terms of demographics," said Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine.

Chinese policymakers have sought to manipulate demographics to meet economic needs, starting in the late 1970s with the "one child policy" that limited the vast majority of couples in China to one child.

In 2016, however, the ruling Communist Party loosened that policy. But birthrates have remained anemic- in part because the one child policy itself created a drop in the number of women of childbearing age.

In March, China's central bank recommended in a report that the government scrap birth restrictions altogether "and sweep off difficulties women faced during pregnancy, childbirth, and kindergarten and school enrollment by all means."

"If China narrowed the gap with the United States over the past 40 years, relying on cheap labor and a huge demographic dividend, what will it rely on in the next 30 years? This is worthy of our deep consideration," the report said.

One of the biggest changes highlighted by the census was China's speedy urbanization.

Last year, city-dwellers accounted for 63.89% of the population, an increase of more than 14 percentage points from the prior census, while the rural population fell to about a third of the population.

"Just in 10 years' time, China has really further transformed to be a really different society," Wang said.

"Hundreds of millions of people ... moved to be urban residents. But at the same time about 200 million urban residents do not have local household registration, which means they are not entitled to local benefits. And that just shows how tremendous a challenge China faces in integrating these people into the cities," he said.

According to the census, Chinese mothers gave birth to 12 million babies last year, a drop of 22% from the year before. The South China Morning Post said it was a near-six decade low — and well below the rate needed for a stable population.

China's gender imbalance persisted but showed slight improvement, according to the statistics bureau.

About 51.24% of the population was male in 2020, while 48.76% were female, the data showed.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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