“We is last generation. A Jan. 17 post that the country’s population fell last year for the first time in decades swept Chinese social media, with some commenters using these doom-laden words. They have a special resonance in China. Last year in Shanghai for During the weeks-long lockdown to prevent the spread of covid-19, an angry resident spat at a policeman in hazmat suits who had warned him that penalties for violating pandemic control rules would affect the The young man’s family spanned three years and several generations. The rebuttal, filmed on a cell phone, went viral. Now, as its meaning really took hold, some are recalling it.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China had a population of 1.412 billion at the end of last year, a decrease of 850,000 from the beginning of the year. The country’s population has not shrunk since 1962, when millions died in a man-made famine sparked by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.
The main reason this time is not the abnormal death toll. On Dec. 7, China rolled back its nearly three-year-old “zero COVID-19” policy, leading to a surge in infections and many deaths. On January 14, officials said nearly 60,000 people had died from COVID-19 since then. The actual number is much higher (official figures only include hospital deaths, which are not usually recorded as such). But officials said the death toll from covid in December was not reflected in the population figures. The reason for the decline is obvious: the desire to reproduce has plummeted. For many Chinese, there is no next generation even for married people.
However, only a few years ago, many Chinese scholars and United Nations China’s population is expected to peak around 2030. It has reached an inflection point ahead of schedule, which will bring Chinese leaders to their senses. It’s another reminder that China no longer enjoys the demographic dividend fueled by an abundance of cheap labor to drive economic growth (3% growth last year, according to the statistics bureau, was one of the slowest since the end of the Maoist era). Now China is aging rapidly. Its working-age population began to shrink in 2012. It is repeating the mistakes of countries such as Japan and South Korea in failing to get rich first or spend enough on medical and other forms of care to meet the needs of a ballooning elderly population.
The government has tried desperately to remedy it, but it is too late. Only in 2016 did it abandon its decades-old policy of forcing many people to have at most one child. Changing 2021 to a couple with three children is more an aspiration than a restriction. There is no penalty for having more. This relaxation – accompanied by a series of measures to encourage births, from cash handouts to tax breaks and extended maternity leave – has had little effect.
The latest data shows that 9.56 million babies will be born in 2022, nearly 10% less than in 2021 and the lowest since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. At current birth rates, her expected birth rate in her lifetime is 1.7. Fall below 1.2 in 2021, United Nations Digital display (see Figure 1). For the population to remain stable, the ratio should be around 2.1, assuming no net migration and constant death rates.
There are several reasons why baby making is becoming less and less popular. The main one is the cost of raising children.Last year, the Yuhua Population Institute, a Beijing-based think tank, reported that such spending accounted for gross domestic product China’s per capita income is higher than that of several advanced economies, including the United States. It considered only South Korea as the more expensive place to have a baby. (That country has the lowest fertility rate in the world.) YuWa warns that China’s declining birth rate could have a “serious negative impact” on the country’s ability to innovate and its “overall national strength.”
Government handouts have done little to ease the burden on parents. On Jan. 10, the city of Shenzhen proposed that couples with a third child (or more) receive subsidies totaling 19,000 yuan ($2,800) in the first three years of the child’s life. But that only accounts for about 8 percent of the total cost, according to official estimates published in state media. Despite the recent slump in China’s real estate market, prices remain high. Couples often delay marriage until they buy a house. The number of marriages has been declining since 2014.
Another financial barrier to childbearing is the cost of care for the elderly. About 35 million Chinese are aged 80 or older. This number is expected to more than quadruple by 2050. Unless the government dramatically increases health spending, households will bear most of the cost.
The reluctance of some young Chinese to marry and have children also shows that traditional values are changing. Women are fighting back against gender inequality in marriage. The Internet is full of discontent with the idea that government efforts to encourage large families suggest they become fertility machines. Some young people, both men and women, refer to themselves as “leeks,” a sign of their resentment at being cynically seen as something to be harvested (i.e. exploited) in pursuit of national or corporate goals. “Getting married and having baby leeks will only damage my personal development and reduce my quality of life,” wrote one commenter on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, about the population decline.
Soon, interest in the topic may be on the rise again among Chinese netizens.this United Nations India’s population is forecast to overtake China’s in April. Some believe this has already happened. The centuries-old end of China’s rule as the world’s most populous country will not please Chinese nationalists. Is it possible, they would wonder, that India, long lagged behind by China’s rapid rise, could use its still-growing working-age population to catch up with China (see Figure 2) and eventually match its power? It’s going to be a heady year for demographics. ■
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