In Focus

Too few children? China’s ‘population crisis’ explained

There were just 12 million births last year, down from 14.65 million in 2019

Will China grow old before it grows rich? That’s the question plaguing officials in Beijing following the alarming results of the country’s seventh census, said Amanda Lee and Orange Wang in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong). Released last week, the once-a-decade data showed that China’s population hit 1.41 billion last year, up by 5.4% on ten years earlier.

That may sound pretty reasonable; but it actually marked the slowest rate of expansion since records began in 1953. Fertility has plunged: there were just 12 million births last year (down from 14.65 million in 2019); the fertility rate fell to 1.3 children – well below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. The country is ageing rapidly: it has added 80 million old people in a decade. The census suggests that China is heading for a “population crisis”, with a shrinking, ageing populace which could slow the pace of its relentless economic growth, and add greatly to spending on health and care.

The trend risks jeopardising China’s status as “the workshop of the world”, agreed Xu Jingjing in Sanlian Shenghuo Zhoukan (Beijing). Our working-age population peaked at 925 million back in 2011, and has decreased every year since – raising questions about who will do the manufacturing jobs on which our economy depends. Beijing only has itself to blame, said Fabian Kretschmer on RND (Hanover). Its one-child policy, introduced in 1979 and lifted only six years ago, led to some 400 million fewer births, while countless abortions contributed to a male surplus of 35 million. And high house prices and the “immense” costs of raising a family are putting a new generation off marriage and children. Yet instead of opening the door to immigration, Beijing has resorted to propaganda promoting “traditional Confucian family values” in a desperate drive to raise birth rates.

For all the dire predictions, talk of a crisis is premature, said Frank Chen in Asia Times (Hong Kong). China’s labour force still exceeds that of the “key Western powers combined”. What’s more, other Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea are also wrestling with population retreat, said Daniel Moss on Bloomberg (New York). Yet all boast high living standards and strong economies. Rising education levels (China’s 218 million graduates in 2020 was nearly double the number ten years earlier) almost always lead to falling birth rates and a shift from rural to urban areas. If China is to continue on its journey from “impoverished backwater” to the world’s largest economy, “sluggish demographics are part of the deal”.

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