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China’s population growing at slowest rate in generations

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP</span>
Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

China has reported the slowest population growth since the early 1960s, despite scrapping its one-child policy in 2015 to encourage more births and stave off a looming demographic crisis.

On Tuesday, the government released the results of its once-a-decade census, saying the overall population of China grew to 1.41178 billion in the 10 years to 2020, up by 5.38%. The increase reflects an average annual rise of 0.53%, down from 0.57% reported from 2000 to 2010.

The reported slowdown is not unexpected, and is in fact better than some analysts expected, but is a sign China has yet to adequately address the social drivers behind fewer people having children, including delayed marriages, high cost of living, and stalled social mobility.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there were officially 12 million babies born in 2020, 2.65 million fewer than were born in 2019, marking an 18% decrease. Preliminary data released earlier this year based on registered births, had indicated a year-on-year drop of 15%.

The data showed China avoided an early population peak, which had been feared by some analysts, but had also missed its growth target set in 2016, to reach 1.42 billion people by 2020.

Related: Can China recover from its disastrous one-child policy?

The census also found the proportion of citizens aged over 65 increased from 8.9% in 2010 to 13.5%, while the proportion of children grew by 1.35% and the working population stayed steady, highlighting China’s rapidly ageing population and associated economic concerns.

Ning Jizhe, the deputy head of the census leading group, acknowledged there was a “moderation” in population growth.

“The number of women of childbearing age … was declining, and there is a postponement of childbearing and the rising cost of child raising,” said Ning. “All of these are reasons behind the decline on newborns.”

Ning said it was “a natural result of China’s economic and social development” but said the ageing population “imposed continued pressure” on long-term development.

At the “Two Sessions” meeting of China’s key government apparatus in March, premier Li Keqiang confirmed the country would phase in a raising of the retirement age, which has remained unchanged for four decades at 60 for men and 55 for women. He also said Beijing would “promote the realisation of moderate fertility” and work to achieve “an appropriate birthrate”.

china birth rate

On Tuesday, officials said the adjustment of fertility policies had “achieved a positive result”, noting the higher proportion of 0- to 14-year-olds, and a “steadily improving” gender imbalance.

The annual growth rate of 0.53% is the lowest since the early 1960s when China was dealing with the aftermath of tens of millions killed by famine, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Between the last census and this one, the Chinese government also scrapped its infamous one-child policy, lifting the limit to two, but it has had little impact.

The two-child limit was “cheap policy”, said Dr Ye Liu, a senior lecturer in international development at King’s College London. “Government lifted the birth quota without any commitments, so they basically shifted responsibilities to individuals, particularly women.”

Related: China’s lost little emperors... how the ‘one-child policy’ will haunt the country for decades | Mei Fong

Tuesday’s figures could provide an opportunity “to think outside the box and take a proactive and wholistic approach”, Liu said.

The government had to address the intersecting factors behind the low birthrate, which include rampant workplace discrimination against women of childbearing age and “scandalously low” public childcare funding, Liu said. Working mothers rely on parents and in-laws for childcare, but with a higher retirement age, those grandparents are going to be less available.

Liu’s suggestions echoed those made by China’s central bank, which in April called for an end to all birth limits, to “fully liberalise and encourage childbirth”, and remove difficulties for women.

Some things cannot be changed. Yen-hsin Alice Cheng, an associate professor at Academica Sinica in Taiwan, said east Asian societies such as China’s industrialised so rapidly that social changes could not keep up, and now generations coexisted with wildly different expectations about gender roles, and how to balance work and family.

“It’s parental pressures on the younger generation’s life course. But the younger generations feel they’re facing a whole different set of uncertainty and risk and difficult competitiveness from the labour market. It’s not that they don’t want to have families, but it’s getting difficult,” said Cheng.

People walk in the subway as the outcome of the seventh national population census by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, are released in Beijing
People walk in the subway as the outcome of the seventh national population census by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, are released in Beijing. Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

The only way to address that was with time, she said, noting that young people across east Asia still feel filial piety and are uneasy about going against their parents’ wishes.

Tuesday’s census data also revealed an increase in population movement to urban centres, and a decrease in the average household size to 2.62 persons, which Ning said reflected “increasing population mobility” and improved housing allowing young people to move out of home.

Prof Carl Minzner, a law professor at Fordham University and Chinese governance expert, said the data was in line with China’s rapid urbanisation, but there were concerns about whether the moving population would become “second class citizens”.

“The real question is will they enjoy social services and education on same level as urban residents.”

The census results were based on data gathered by 7 million census takers who began going door to door in November 2020. The release had been delayed by more than a month, without explanation, sparking rampant speculation and rumours, including that there were deficiencies in the data because of the impact of Covid, or that birthrates had moved in a direction unaligned with government plans.

“For Chinese authorities population is getting increasingly sensitive and when numbers get sensitive, like you saw with GDP data, that’s where you see possibilities for data getting massaged, and I think you have to flag that as a potential question,” said Minzner.

‘It’s not our obligation to have children’

Antonia, a legal sector worker in Shanghai, realised she didn’t want children about six or seven years ago. The 34-year-old likes kids and as a young girl always imagined she’s have one of her own, but as she grew up life began to look increasingly unfair, and she started pushing back on the pressure of family, society, and government to become a mother.

“More and more I thought: this is not the life I want. I had a choice,” she said.

Antonia, who describes herself as a feminist and from the labour class, is not having children for reasons which align to the broad factors noted by analysts: Social mobility is stalling, costs of living are high, public childcare is rare, and workplaces discriminate. Women are rejecting the higher cost that parenting puts on their bodies, careers and personal lives compared to what it puts on men’s.

“Honestly I think if the government wants people to have more children, their job is to get us to live more comfortably,” said Antonia.

“It’s not our obligation to have children.”

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