China’s population has grown the slowest since the 1960s, with births declining and a graying workforce presenting the Communist Party with one of its greatest social and economic challenges.
Figures for a census conducted last year and released Tuesday showed the country has 1.41 billion people, about 72 million more than that 1.34 billion, which was counted in the last census in 2010.
According to Ning Jizhe, head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, only 12 million babies were born in China last year. This is the fourth year in a row that births in the country have fallen. This is the lowest official birth rate since 1961, when a famine caused by Communist Party policies killed millions of people and only 11.8 million babies were born.
The figures show that China is facing a demographic crisis that could slow the growth of the world’s second largest economy. China faces age-related challenges similar to those of developed countries, but its households, on average, live on much lower incomes than the US and elsewhere.
In other words, the country is getting old without first getting rich.
“Aging has become a fundamental national condition in China for a while,” Ning said at a press conference at which the census results were announced.
China’s population problems could force Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, to reckon with the flaws in the ruling Communist Party’s family planning policy, which for decades has been a major cause of public discontent in the country. If the trend continues unabated, it risks complicating Mr. Xi’s “Chinese Dream,” a promise of the long-term economic prosperity and national rejuvenation on which he has placed his legacy.
Beijing is now under greater pressure to abandon its family planning policies, which are among the most intrusive in the world. Revising an economic model that has long been based on a huge population and a growing pool of workers; and fill yawning gaps in health care and pensions.
“China is facing a unique demographic challenge that is the most urgent and severe in the world,” said Liang Jianzhang, research professor of applied economics at Beijing University and a demographic expert. “This is a long-term time bomb.”
The new population puts the average annual growth rate over the past ten years at 0.53 percent after 0.57 percent from 2000 to 2010. India, as the most populous nation in the world, is well on the way to being surpassed in the coming years.
The results of the census once a decade also showed that the population is aging rapidly. People over 65 make up 13.5 percent of the population today, up from 8.9 percent in 2010. When they were younger, that population was one of China’s greatest strengths.
For decades, China relied on an endless stream of young workers willing to work for low wages to fuel economic growth. Labor costs are rising today, partly due to labor shortages. Factory owners in the southern city of Guangzhou stand on the streets asking staff to choose them. Some companies have turned to robots because they cannot find enough workers.
While most industrialized countries in the west and Asia are also aging, China’s demographic problems are largely self-inflicted. China imposed a one-child policy in 1980 to curb population growth. Local officials enforced it with sometimes draconian measures. It may have prevented 400 million births, according to government figures, but it has also reduced the number of women of childbearing age due to cultural preferences for boys.
As the population ages it will put tremendous pressure on the country’s overburdened hospitals and underfunded pension system. China continues to grapple with a huge surplus of single men, which has created problems like the bride trade, an unintended consequence of its family planning rules.
These trends are difficult to reverse. Three decades after the one-child policy was introduced, attitudes towards family size have changed and many Chinese now only prefer one child.
Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, compared China’s birth control to a mortgage the government took out on their future.
“The census results will confirm that the payback time is now,” Professor Wang, an expert on China’s demographic trends, said before the results were released. “Demographics will limit many of China’s ambitious endeavors.”
The census could lead policymakers to further relax family planning restrictions, which have been eased since 2016 to restrict couples to two children. Many local governments already allow families to have three or more children without paying fines.
However, demographers say there are no easy solutions. A growing cohort of educated Chinese women is postponing marriage, which has been declining since 2014. China is unwilling to rely on immigration to strengthen its population. The divorce rate has increased steadily since 2003. Many millennials are put off by the cost of raising children.
In southwestern Chengdu, Tracy Wang, the 29-year-old founder of an English children’s enrichment center, said she decided in her early twenties that she didn’t want to have children.
“Basically, I don’t like children very much – yes, they may be cute – but I don’t want to give birth to them or take care of them,” Ms. Wang said.
“Before, a lot of people thought it was such an incredulous thought, ‘How can you even think like that?'” She said. “But now everyone understands that you can’t afford it.”
In the coming decades, Beijing will face the daunting task of sustaining strong economic growth and remaining globally competitive as the labor pool shrinks.
“China’s economy may not overtake that of the US as the largest economy in the foreseeable future.” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, a senior Chinese economist at Capital Economics, a research firm. “And the main reason for that is demographic differences.”
China is also maturing much faster than most countries, a rate that is rapidly outpacing the government’s meager investment in health and social services for an older population. A key challenge for Beijing is to help the country’s younger generation look after the growing number of retirees. People under the age of 14 made up 18 percent of the population, up from 17 percent 10 years ago.
The government wants to raise the retirement age, which is 60 for men and 50 for most women, among the lowest in the world, to ease pressure on the underfunded pension system. China’s largest state pension fund, which relies on tax revenues from its workforce, runs the risk of running out of money by 2036 if policies remain unchanged, according to a study commissioned by the party.
However, when people work longer hours their own problems arise and opposition to delaying retirement is widespread. Many young Chinese adults fear that such a move would make it harder for them to find work, and those with children fear that if they cannot retire, they will not be able to rely on their parents for childcare. Some older adults fear that it will be difficult for them to find or keep jobs in a society where younger workers are often preferred.
Elsie Chen contributed to the coverage. Claire Fu contributed to the research.