China’s population shrank last year for the first time since a devastating famine in the Mao era, in a clear sign that the country is facing a looming demographic crisis worsened by decades of coercive policy that limited most families to a single child.
The last time China’s population declined was in 1961, after three years of famine caused by Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward industrial policy, along with floods and drought.
The government’s efforts to reverse the falling birthrate began in earnest in 2016, when it ended the one-child-per-family rule, placing the restriction at two children instead. But neither that revision nor a 2021 adjustment to allow three children has slowed the downward trend.
China faces a shrinking workforce that will struggle to support a rapidly aging population. Its centuries-old position as the most populous nation in the world is likely to be assumed by India this year, according to projections by the United Nations.
Although long predicted, that reversal has arrived far earlier than expected. Leading Chinese scholars and the United Nations estimated as recently as 2019 that the downward trend would not begin until early in the 2030s.
Official recognition of a declining population is an “extremely important historical inflection point” not just for China but also for the world, said Yi Fuxian, a scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a longtime critic of Beijing’s failure to accept the extent of its demographic crisis.
If not addressed, Yi argues, China’s rapidly aging society will undercut Beijing’s vision of itself as an ascendant power poised to overtake the United States. A loss of economic dynamism undercuts the country’s current cheap, labor-reliant development model, while the lack of a robust social security net or pension system could “evolve into a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.
The danger for Chinese leader Xi Jinping is that his pursuit of “national rejuvenation” ends in economic stagnation similar to that which has plagued Japan since the 1990s. The East Asian nation, once considered a budding rival to the United States, is now the oldest society in the world, with 29 percent of the population over 65. With a comparably contracting workforce, China, too, could fall short of its ambition to become a global leader.
For decades, Chinese leaders have heeded the warning that demography is destiny — and adopted extreme policies in response. Starting in the 1970s, Communist leaders’ fears of an expanding population outstripping the food supply led to a campaign of telling couples to marry later, wait between children and have fewer offspring overall. The birthrate fell dramatically.
But the Chinese leadership remained terrified of an oversized population. Its solution was the draconian one-child policy, implemented in 1980. The policy resulted in mass forced abortions, sterilizations and the insertion of intrauterine devices.
Among the policy’s many unintended consequences has been a steep gender imbalance, as pregnant women had sex-selective abortions. That resulted in China having a sex ratio of 104.69 men to every 100 women as of 2022.
A society built around the single-child household also provides only limited child-care support. In multiple surveys, respondents regularly cite the rising costs of a large family as the primary reason not to have more children.
This is especially true for Chinese people who live in large cities, many of whom have radically different beliefs about marriage and giving birth compared with those of their parents’ generation. Other oft-cited concerns include lower wages for women after giving birth and a lack of easily available child care.
In recent months, local governments have adopted support measures to alleviate these financial burdens. Shanghai last year gave mothers an additional 60 days of maternity leave on top of state-mandated time off; paternity leave was extended to 10 days. Shenzhen on Tuesday became the latest Chinese city to give out subsidies of 10,000 yuan ($1,476) for couples who have a third child.
Many believe far more is needed. Writing on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, economist Ren Zeping called for immediate policies to encourage birth such as subsidies for childbirth, inclusion of fertility treatment in social insurance and better guarantees of employment for women. “Population is the most important and most easily overlooked future issue” facing China, he said.
Working professionals also face fewer and less attractive job prospects as China’s decades of rapid economic growth come to an end. Amid government crackdowns on technology industries and excessive wealth, working as a civil servant has suddenly become attractive because it is perceived as a stable career.
Officials also announced Tuesday that gross domestic product grew by only 3 percent last year, as regular disruptions from “zero covid” policies hurt consumption at the same time that the critical real estate sector contracted. The expansion was drastically smaller than the 5.5 percent that authorities had targeted. Unemployment among 16-to-24-year-olds remained high, at 16.7 percent for the year, after reaching nearly 20 percent in July.
Now, with zero-covid policies lifted in December, China’s economy is showing signs of rebounding, a shift that could prevent a global recession. Growth for this year is forecast to top 4 percent, according to the World Bank.
But the harsh lockdowns added to the malaise among young Chinese people. A video of a Shanghai resident telling coronavirus prevention workers that “we are the last generation” went viral in May, with many online saying how the phrase captured a sense of desperation they, too, felt about the lack of a desirable future into which they might bring offspring.
The same phrase was posted widely on Weibo in response to Tuesday’s announcement of a population decline.
Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.