Despite Beijing’s baby-booster, China’s population growth hits new low

Over the past 10 years, changes in China’s domestic policies have led to a growing sense of demographic urgency. A strictly enforced one-child mandate was replaced by a two-child option in some cases (2013), which morphed into two children for all (2016), which transitioned to the current government push for three children (2021).

But where are the babies? Why aren’t playgrounds as crowded as Beijing’s infamous 3rd Ring Road? The workers of tomorrow are nowhere to be found.

Despite the government’s best efforts, data released last week by China’s National Bureau of Statistics shows that in 2021, in a country of 1.4 billion people, there was net population growth of just 480 000 people – compared to 10.1 million deaths and 10.6 million births – suggesting a disconnect between China’s political goals and its people.

FILE – Families with young children pose for photos in Beijing, February 13, 2021. Struggling with an aging population and falling birth rates, China is trying to change its population policies to avert a demographic crisis.

“Working overtime night and day and dealing with the ridiculous cost of goods…who wants your children to grow up in such an environment?” said a poster on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform.

“You can’t have both a mortgage and a formula,” joked another.

A third joked: “Let’s suppose…will this year’s Spring Festival gala promote the three-child policy? the Spring Festival Galaa television production by state-owned China Media Group, has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most-watched television show in the world since 1983. And, according to state-controlled CCTV, it is of an annual essential. New Year’s show dance, song and comedy.

China’s birth rate has declined rapidly over the past five years, from 12.4 births per 1,000 citizens in 2017 to 7.52 births per 1,000 citizens in 2021, the lowest in nearly 60 years, according to statistics bureau records. The time period is significant because the Great Chinese Famine began in 1959 and ended in 1961, three years before China conducted its second benchmark census. “Some 30 million Chinese died of starvation, and roughly the same number of births were lost or delayed,” according to an article on the famine in the National Institutes of Health archive.

Yi Fuxian, a senior fellow in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Big Country With an Empty Nest, told VOA Mandarin that “as China’s economic miracle has been heavily based on its labor inexhaustible work, an inflection point in its population will inevitably mean an inflection point in its economic model.”

In this photo from June 1, 2017, women walk with children wearing matching hats as they cross a bridge in a public park on International Children's Day in Beijing.

In this photo from June 1, 2017, women walk with children wearing matching hats as they cross a bridge in a public park on International Children’s Day in Beijing.

Has the population already reached its maximum?

Although scholars have previously called China’s population crisis a ticking time bomb, China’s population may have peaked much sooner than expected, given the rapid aging of the population and the rapid decline in the rate of birth rate, Yi said.

China’s National Population Development Plan (2016-2030) estimated that the fertility rate between 2020 and 2030 would hover around 1.8 babies per woman of reproductive age and the country would begin to experience population growth. negative in 2031. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Developmenta public policy think tank, a nation needs a fertility rate of 2.1 to maintain a stable population.

China’s true fertility rate may be lower than the official estimate, Yi said. “We will start to see the population decline in 2022, nine years earlier than expected,” he added.

Mark Williams, Chief Asia Economist at Capital savingwrote on his company’s website last week that “the most likely scenario is that slowing productivity growth and a shrinking workforce prevent China from overtaking the United States.”

The Seventh Census of China, released in 2020, found that there were 880 million people aged 16 to 59 in the labor force, a sharp drop of more than 40 million from 2010 figures. You Jun, vice minister of the ministry Chinese Human Resources and Social Security Department said in March that China’s workforce would continue to decline, shrinking by 35 million over the next five years. In about 25 years, one-third of China’s population will be retirees, according to the 2020 census report from China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

Global problem

China is not alone in facing this problem. A study published in October 2020 in The Lancet, a medical journal, warns of “breathtaking” economic, social and geopolitical effects on nearly every country as fertility rates fall and populations shrink. “Our results suggest that continued trends in women’s educational attainment and access to contraception will accelerate fertility decline and slow population growth,” the study authors said.

Thomas Duesterberg, senior research fellow in economics at the Hudson Institute, said population growth is one of the most important sources of economic growth because as the labor force shrinks, the rate of innovation also decreases.

“The capacity for innovation and ingenuity of human beings is reduced because a lot of people’s creativity is in the early part of their career,” he told VOA Mandarin. “So if you have an aging population and a declining population, you’re likely to see less of that ability to innovate, which is another key part of growth going forward.”

Ning Jizhe, head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, acknowledged after the release of the 2020 census that “the country’s economic structure and technological development need to be adjusted and adapted” as the country’s population structure changes.

Bill Conerly, economist and author of The Flexible Stance: Thriving in a Boom/Bust Economy, said the falling birth rate would not have an immediate impact on China’s economy.

“A baby is a clean drain on the economy for 15, 25 years and sometimes even longer. So I don’t give it much thought,” he told VOA Mandarin.

But in the long term, the decline in the birth rate will eventually affect the labor market. “In fact, the birth rate has been going down for quite some time,” he said. “So maybe China is only 10 years away from having a very tight labor market. It will happen eventually.”

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