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China says its population is still growing, if slowly, in once-a-decade census

People visit the Great Wall of China during the Labor Day holiday on May 1. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

The official word from Beijing is that China’s population is still growing — if barely.

China released its once-a-decade census results on Tuesday, rejecting whispers that the country may have reached the inflection point where its population begins to shrink. Still, officials acknowledged the looming demographic challenges of an aging population and a stubbornly low birthrate.

According to the census, China’s population reached 1.41 billion in 2020, up from 1.40 billion in 2019. Average annual population growth over the past decade was 0.53 percent.

“The population growth rate will continue to slow down in the future,” said Ning Jizhe, a commissioner of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, at a news conference in Beijing.

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Ning declined to forecast when China’s population will peak but said the overall figure will remain above 1.4 billion for a while into the future.

Chinese economists have warned of a potential demographic crisis if not enough children are born in coming years — leading to societal strains as fewer young people work to support a larger aging population.

The census report was originally slated for release in April, and its delay prompted speculation. The Financial Times reported on Tuesday, citing sources close to the National Statistics Bureau, that the original figure had come in below 1.4 billion and was revised up.

Asked about the delay at the news conference, the statistics bureau’s chief methodologist, Zeng Yuping, said officials decided to push back the release to add more details into the report, given the public interest.

“That’s why it took longer to prepare the data,” he said.

The numbers hinted at challenges ahead for China. Ning said there were only 12 million births in 2020, down from 18 million and 17 million in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Compared with 2010, the number of working-age people age 16 to 59 decreased by 40 million. The census put the average age of the Chinese population at 38.8, higher than the United States’ 38.

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Chinese researchers have forecast that the country’s population will peak in the next few years. Cai Fang, a scholar who sits on the monetary policy committee of the People’s Bank of China, estimated in an essay this month that the peak may come before 2025.

The last time China’s population recorded a decline was in the 1950s, after Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” campaign for farmers to switch to steelmaking resulted in a deadly famine.

In 1980, China adopted a one-child policy as its population ballooned. This remained in place until 2015, when it was relaxed to two children per family. After an initial uptick in births, the two-child policy has not resulted in the sustained baby boom that officials hoped for, with many young people wary of the cost of raising more than one child.

Beijing has taken further steps to promote births. China’s National Health Commission announced in February a pilot program to lift birth restrictions in the northeast rust belt provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning.

He Yafu, an independent demographer, told the state-run Global Times this week that there is no doubt that China will fully lift birth restrictions in the near future to counter the declining birthrate.

China is still the world’s most populous country, but with India narrowing the gap. The United Nations estimated India’s population in 2019 at 1.37 billion.

Lyric Li and Alicia Chen contributed to this report.

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