West News Wire: According to official statistics released on Tuesday, China’s population fell for the first time in decades last year as its birthrate plummeted, adding to the strain on the country’s authorities to maintain economic growth despite an aging labor force and mounting tensions with the United States.
Despite the official statistics, some experts think China’s population has been declining for a while. This would be a remarkable change for a nation that once attempted to regulate population growth by enforcing a one-child policy.
Many developed nations are grappling with how to deal with aging populations, which can slow economic growth. However, some experts believe that a developing country like China would find it particularly challenging to handle this demographic shift.
“China has become older before it has become rich,” said Yi Fuxian, a demographer and expert on Chinese population trends at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The National Bureau of Statistics reported Tuesday that the country had 850,000 fewer people at the end of 2022 than the previous year. The tally includes only the population of mainland China, excluding Hong Kong and Macao as well as foreign residents.
Over 1 million fewer babies were born than the previous year amid a slowing economy and widespread pandemic lockdowns, according to official figures. The bureau reported 9.56 million births in 2022; deaths ticked up to 10.41 million.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the population figures were affected by the COVID-19 outbreak that was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan before spreading around the world. China has been accused by some specialists of underreporting deaths from the virus by blaming them on underlying conditions, but no estimates of the actual number have been published.
China’s population has begun to decline nine to 10 years earlier than Chinese officials predicted and the United Nation projected, said Yi. The country has long been the world’s most populous nation, but is expected to soon be overtaken by India, if it has not already.
China has sought to bolster its population since officially ending its one-child policy in 2016. Since then, China has tried to encourage families to have second or even third children, with little success, reflecting attitudes in much of east Asia where birth rates have fallen precipitously. In China, the expense of raising children in cities is often cited as a cause.
Yi said that, based on his own research, China’s population has actually been declining since 2018, showing the population crisis is “much more severe” than previously thought. China now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, comparable only to Taiwan and South Korea, he said.
That means China’s “real demographic crisis is beyond imagination and that all of China’s past economic, social, defense and foreign policies were based on faulty demographic data,” Yi told The Associated Press.
China’s looming economic crisis will be worse than Japan’s, where years of low growth have been blamed in part on a shrinking population, Yi said.
On top of the demographic challenges, China is increasingly in economic competition with the U.S., which has blocked the access of some Chinese companies to American technology, citing national security and fair competition concerns.
The last time China is believed to have experienced a population decline was during the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous drive for collective farming and industrialization launched by by then-leader Mao Zedong at the end of the 1950s that produced a massive famine that killed tens of millions of people.
China’s statistics bureau said the working-age population between 16 and 59 years old totaled 875.56 million, accounting for 62% of the national population, while those aged 65 and older totaled 209.78 million, accounting for 14.9% of the total.