China’s birthrate has fallen to its lowest level in six decades, barely outnumbering deaths last year despite major government efforts to increase population growth and stave off a demographic crisis.
Across China, 10.62 million babies were born last year, a rate of 7.52 per thousand people, the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics said yesterday. In the same period 10.14 million deaths were recorded, a mortality rate of 7.18 per thousand, producing a population growth rate of just 0.34 per 1,000 people.
The growth rate is the lowest since 1960, and adds to the findings of May last year’s once-per-decade census, which found an average annual rise of 0.53 percent, down from 0.57 percent reported from 2000 to 2010.
China, as with much of east Asia, is in the grip of a population crisis with lowering birthrates and predictions of imminent negative population growth, along with an aging population. Yesterday’s figures showed the proportion of over-60s in China rose from 18.7 percent in 2020 to 18.9 percent.
“The demographic challenge is well known, but the speed of population aging is clearly faster than expected,” Pinpoint Asset Management chief economist Zhiwei Zhang said. “This suggests China’s total population may have reached its peak in 2021. It also indicates China’s potential growth is likely slowing faster than expected.”
Beijing has announced major reforms to address the decline, including raising the retirement age. A three-child limit has replaced the two-child policy that was introduced in 2016, and had sparked a slight increase in births before falling again.
The high cost of living, delayed marriages and lack of social mobility are frequently cited as contributing factors to young Chinese people’s reluctance to have children. In response, Beijing has banned expensive private tutoring, and pledged better access to childcare and maternity leave.
University of California Irvine professor Wang Feng (王豐), who specializes in Asian demographics, said the results showed that root causes run deeper than the policymakers realized.
“The policies announced last year are mostly rhetoric, or at most like band-aids,” he said. “Without addressing the deeply rooted causes discouraging young Chinese from getting married and having children, from gender inequality to high living cost, what we are seeing now is likely just the beginning of a further decline in birthrate and a prolonged process of population decline in China.”
China also faces potential instability on the economic front, with GDP data published alongside the population findings revealing a dramatic slowdown in the final months of last year.
China, the world’s second-largest economy, reported a GDP rise of 8.1 percent year-on-year, beyond the government’s predictions of 6 percent, but with growth concentrated in the first half of the year. In the fourth quarter, it rose by 4 percent, down from 4.9 percent in the third quarter.
“The domestic economy is under the triple pressures of demand contraction, supply shock and weakening expectations,” bureau director Ning Jizhe (寧吉?) said.
The past year has seen extraordinary levels of change in consumer habits and of government intervention in major Chinese industries. Retail sales growth dropped from 3.9 percent in November to 1.7 percent last month.
“Economic growth is clearly under pressure,” Zhang said, adding that outbreaks of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 exacerbated the downside risk.
Construction has slumped and property sales were battered amid a crisis in development, most notably the ongoing financial difficulties of property developer Evergrande.
Government intervention into the US$1 billion private tutoring industry and continued crackdowns on the tech sector have also seen waves of layoffs. An emissions-reduction push, supply chain issues and bans on imported coal have been blamed, alongside rising power prices.
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