China’s Population May Have Shrunk for First Time Since Great Leap Forward (Updated)

Updated at 21:21:47 PDT on Apr 27, 2021: This post has been updated to note doubts about the reportedly looming census figures.

The latest Chinese census may reveal that China’s population has shrunk for the first time in over fifty years, according to a report by The Financial Times. The census results, which were originally expected to be released this month but have been delayed, are expected to show that China’s population has dipped below 1.4 billion, two years after it reportedly reached that mark. The Financial Times’ Sun Yu reported on the leaked results and their implications:

The latest Chinese census, which was completed in December but has yet to be made public, is expected to report the total population of the country at less than 1.4bn, according to people familiar with the research. In 2019, China’s population was reported to have exceeded the 1.4bn mark.

The people cautioned, however, that the figure was considered very sensitive and would not be released until multiple government departments had reached a consensus on the data and its implications.

[…] China’s birth rates have weakened even after Beijing relaxed its decades-long family planning policy in 2015, allowing all couples to have two children instead of one. The population expanded under the one-child policy introduced in the late 1970s, thanks to a bulging population of young people in the aftermath of the Communist revolution as well as increased life expectancy. [Source]

The Economist’s Simon Rabinovitch noted that the turning point may not have arrived yet after all, though “the trends are clear” in that direction:

Signs of a major slowdown in China’s population growth have been evident for some time. In February, the Ministry of Public Security announced a significant decline in newborns recorded in the hukou system, ringing alarm bells. But those figures did not include China’s entire population, with full figures originally expected to come out in the census this month. For South China Morning Post, Jacob Fromer reported on the significance of a population decline in China:

Analysts say that the signs have been clear that a demographic crisis is looming in China – and that officials there have not always been honest about the population numbers they present.

“If the data is wrong, it means that the policymaking is wrong,” said Yi. “China faces a very severe age problem.”

[…] “The demographic trends in China were already obvious before this announcement, but this news confirms fears that China’s population shrinkage continues despite relaxation of its population policies,” said Mary Gallagher, director of the University of Michigan’s International Institute and author of Authoritarian Legality in China: Law, Workers, and the State.

“Labor shortages in manufacturing and the rapid ageing of China’s population were noticed nearly two decades ago,” she said. “It is sensitive because many people blame the government for the long delay in rescinding the one-child policy.” [Source]

On Twitter, Yiqin Fu provided a primer on how Chinese officials have historically inflated China’s population figures:

Recent rhetoric and policies put forward by Chinese leaders have revealed the government’s growing concern about the country’s graying workforce. South China Morning Post’s Frank Tang reported on an unusually candid research paper published by China’s central bank warning about a looming pension deficit and debt crisis due to the rapidly ageing population:

The PBOC warned China had only about a decade left to enjoy the benefits of its large working age population, which has helped propel growth over the past four decades.

Authorities should “fully liberalise and encourage” childbirth to offset the economic effects of a falling fertility rate and ageing, warning “the pay as you go pension system can hardly cope with the ageing crisis”, the central bank said.

[…] The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) estimated in a 2019 report the pension reserve will run out by 2035 and the deficit could swell to 11 trillion yuan by 2050.

Some provinces with shrinking populations and slow economic growth, such as the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, have already reported pension shortfalls, forcing authorities to establish a national pool and cross-province allocation to guarantee timely payment. [Source]

While the liberalization of China’s birth control policies might be welcomed by some, other policies to be implemented are expected to be decidedly more unpopular. This week, The New York Times’ Vivian Wang and Joy Dong reported on the Chinese government’s announcement that it would begin raising the retirement age:

China said last month that it would “gradually delay the legal retirement age” over the next five years, in an attempt to address one of the country’s most pressing issues. Its rapidly aging population means a shrinking labor force. State pension funds are at risk of running out. And China has some of the lowest retirement ages in the world: 50 for blue-collar female workers, 55 for white-collar female workers, and 60 for most men.

The idea, though, is deeply unpopular. The government has yet to release details of its plan, but older workers have already decried being cheated of their promised timelines, while young people worry that competition for jobs, already fierce, will intensify.

[…] The Chinese government itself abandoned a previous effort to raise retirement ages in 2015, in the face of a similar outcry.

This time, it seems determined to follow through. But it has also acknowledged the backlash. Officials appear to be treading gingerly, leaving the details vague for now but suggesting that the threshold would be raised by just a few months each year. [Source]

Less straightforward for Chinese officials will be how to promote population growth, or at least slow the decline. A confluence of social challenges has resulted in fewer citizens having children, particularly over the last year. For one, fewer couples are tying the knot. Last week, Nikkei Asia’s Iori Kawate reported that marriages in China posted the biggest drop in decades:

According to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, 8.13 million couples registered their marriages in 2020, down 12% and the seventh consecutive year of decline. The figure also represents a 40% fall from the 2013 peak.

[…] Slow income growth amid the outbreak is adding to a groom’s already heavy financial burden. People are also tying the knot later in life, a tendency that will likely lead to fewer newborns.

Last year’s decline was the steepest since 1982, when the number of marriages fell by 20%. The drop can be partly attributed to the prolonged closure of registration offices due to the pandemic, but finances appear to have played a major role. [Source]

The Chinese government has introduced a series of measures to promote marriage and childraising, but some of those measures have been heavily criticized. A divorce law that took effect this year that requires couples to wait out a 30-day “cooling off period” has been condemned for making it harder for victims of domestic violence to escape dangerous relationships, amid an ongoing domestic violence crisis.

This month, a crackdown on “extreme and radical politics” targeted adherents of “6B4T,” a feminist resistance movement whose adherents pledge not to marry or procreate. New Party slogans emphasizing family virtues and traditional values have launched, and feminist activists have been censored. The Wall Street Journal’s Chao Deng and Liyan Qi reported on how the new campaign to promote family values has gone hand in hand with new repressive policies and censorship of feminist voices:

During Mr. Xi’s time in power, new party slogans emphasizing “family, family education and family virtues” or “pass on the red gene” have been coupled with efforts to censor voices on women’s rights.

[…] “What are they afraid of?” asks one user in reference to the deleted accounts. “Are they afraid of more women waking up? Are they panicking when seeing the fertility rates and marriage rates?”

[…] Mr. Xi has built Confucian values, including conservative views of women’s role in the family, into his China Dream of nationalist revival, says Derek Hird of Lancaster University. “If you’ve got these highly educated women who don’t want to get married, that then becomes part of the demographic worries and concerns that play into this larger discourse on family values.”

[…] Declines in state-funded child care are among reasons Chinese women are choosing to leave work, says Joseph Chamie, a former director of the United Nations Population Division. “The challenge for many countries [seeking to raise fertility rates], including China, is the balance women face between employment, careers and caring for children and family.” [Source]


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