Census Suggests China’s Population Graying But Growing—For Now

After a month of delay and speculation, China’s National Bureau of Statistics released the results of the 2020 census, including a total population figure of 1.41 billion—an increase of 72 million since the last census in 2010. Controversial early reports had claimed the census would show population decline for the first time since the famine induced by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Although those predictions did not come to pass, China missed its own population targets, meaning total population will likely decline by 2025 at the latest. At The Guardian, Helen Davidson and Vincent Ni wrote about the census results, which showed China to be a rapidly aging nation with low-fertility rates:

On Tuesday, the government released the results of its once-a-decade census, saying the overall population of China grew to 1.41178 billion in the 10 years to 2020, up by 5.38%. The increase reflects an average annual rise of 0.53%, down from 0.57% reported from 2000 to 2010.

[…] According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there were officially 12 million babies born in 2020, 2.65 million fewer than were born in 2019, marking an 18% decrease. Preliminary data released earlier this year based on registered births, had indicated a year-on-year drop of 15%.

[…] The census also found the proportion of citizens aged over 65 increased from 8.9% in 2010 to 13.5%, while the proportion of children grew by 1.35% and the working population stayed steady, highlighting China’s rapidly ageing population and associated economic concerns. [Source]

Some noted the seeming discrepancies in the official data:

The Economist examined potential explanations for inconsistencies:

As ever with Chinese data, there were some oddities. Taken at face value, the population increase in 2020 when compared with annual birth figures suggested that, miraculously, no one died last year.

For those willing to grant Chinese officials a modicum of trust, the controversies can be explained away. It is misleading to compare China’s annually reported population figures, extrapolations based on tiny samples, with its once-a-decade census, in which boffins try to tot up everyone in the country. Demographers said the covid-19 pandemic, during which tens of millions of migrant workers returned to their rural homes, caused delays to the count. And upward revisions to past population data help resolve the death-free miracle (millions did in fact pass away last year). [Source]

From 1980 to 2015, the central government imposed a “One-Child Policy”—which became a “No Child Policy” over the course of 100 terrible days in Shandong’s Guan County—to limit population growth. The policy created a gender ratio imbalance that persists today: 113 boys are born for every 100 girls, whereas 105/100 is considered standard. Now that China’s fertility rate has dropped to 1.3 (for comparison, in 2019 South Korea’s was 0.918 and the United States’ was 1.705), authorities are looking to induce more births by limiting divorce and further loosening family planning regulations. The government has also cracked down hard on feminist groups, believing feminism is partially responsible for the decline. Many women are skeptical of the new policies. As one commentator put it, “As soon as they want access to your uterus, they start sweet-talking you.”

The cost of raising a child is prohibitively high for many. A recent study estimated that it takes 1.9 million yuan, over $300,000, for an ordinary family to raise a single child—a fourfold increase from 2005. A young English teacher in Chengdu told The New York Times why she didn’t want to give birth: “Before, many people used to think it was such an incredulous thought… But now, they all understand that you can’t afford it.” Many women also fear that taking pregnancy leave will hurt their career prospects. One Peking University professor’s suggested solution, a million-yuan baby bonus, went viral on Weibo. From Global Times:

Peking University professor Liang Jianzhang’s advice to reward a million yuan ($155,499) to each newborn sparked wide discussions online, and the hashtag made the most searched topic list on Weibo on Tuesday night.

Liang said that to raise China’s fertility rate to the replacement level of 2.1 from current 1.3, China needs to spend 10 percent of its GDP to encourage births.

China’s GDP was around 100 trillion yuan, and the government needs to reward 1 million yuan for each newborn if China wants to have 10 million extra newborns every year, Liang said, adding that this reward could be in the form of cash, subsidy in purchasing a home or a deduction in social insurance. [Source]

Low fertility rates are endemic to almost all of the countries in East Asia, and some experts are skeptical that China can reverse the trend through policy measures alone: “What China needs is not another state policy, but rather a better and fairer society,” Professor Wang Feng of University of California Irvine told The Guardian. At The Wall Street Journal, Liyan Qi wrote about the discrimination mothers face—even as the central government plans an about-face on natal policy:

And the rare couple that wants more than two children runs the risk of punishment as long as China’s birth restrictions remain on the books.

A 33-year-old former local-government worker in Hangzhou, who preferred using only her last name, Li, is suing her employer, which let her go four months after she gave birth to a third child last year. Chinese law bans employers from firing employees during the months immediately after a child is born.

[…] In 2015, after China said it would lift the one-child policy, Wang Peian, then a deputy director of China’s family-planning commission, called family planning a “fundamental state policy” that China should adhere to for a long time. Two years later, Mr. Wang disputed that China faced a risk of a population shortage. “Not now, not in 100 years,” he said at a news conference where he predicted between 17 million and 19 million births a year through 2020.

[…] In April, Mr. Wang, now a member of the Communist Party’s political advisory body, called for a “significant adjustment of population policy” in favor of measures to encourage births, according to a newspaper run by the advisory body. [Source]

The census also showed increases in university graduates and urban population. From Bloomberg News:

Beijing is planning to maintain growth by moving more of the hundreds of millions of people who work in agricultural jobs in rural areas into cities for higher-paying manufacturing and service industry work over the coming decades.

The census showed that the country added 230 million urban residents in the past decade, with 63.9% of the population living in cities last year, up from 49.7% in 2010. That puts the proportion of urban residents in China similar to levels seen in the U.S. in 1950, suggesting large potential for further catch-up.

The population is also becoming much more educated, a trend which helps its economy grow. In 2020, 15.5% of people held degrees from vocational colleges or universities, up from 9% a decade earlier. [Source]

Some have argued that a less populous China might be good news for the global response to climate change. China has set ambitious emissions reduction goals, and China’s population drop might help it achieve them. From Peter R. Orzag at Bloomberg:

From a climate perspective, the population decline is good news, since fewer people means lower emissions.

[…] This matters to the climate because China is the world’s most populous country, and more people mean more emissions and bigger populations at risk from climate change. As a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences put it, “The size of the human population, in the near-term and distant future, is a key determinant of climate policy: All else equal, a larger population entails more emissions and therefore more mitigation to achieve a given climate target, and it also means more future people will be vulnerable to climate-related impacts.”

How big is this connection? The effect of population on carbon emissions without any policy or technological changes is not exactly fixed per person, because so many details matter, including the age mix and consumption patterns. But roughly, fewer people mean proportionately lower emissions. Consider comparisons of “shared socio-economic pathways,” estimates that are used internationally to assess future populations. The low SSP1 projection shows a global population of 8.5 billion by 2050, whereas the baseline SSP2 projection for that year is 9.2 billion, for a difference of about 8%. Carbon-equivalent emissions are similarly projected to be roughly 5% to 10% lower in 2050 under the SSP1 scenario compared with the SSP2 baseline. It’s notable that the effects of population choices are often assessed to be materially larger than other plausible changes that can be made to mitigate climate change. [Source]


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