'Shocking' fall in China's national growth rate as population ageing intensifies

Orange Wang and Luna Sun, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 17 2022 02:39 PM

People wearing face masks cross a street in Beijing, following outbreaks of the coronavirus disease in China, October 25, 2021. Thomas Peter, Reuters/File
People wearing face masks cross a street in Beijing, following outbreaks of the coronavirus disease in China, October 25, 2021. Thomas Peter, Reuters/File

Mainland China’s population increased by less than half a million last year, and the number of births also dropped for the fifth consecutive year in 2021, data released on Monday showed.

China’s overall population increased by about 480,000 people – to 1.4126 billion in 2021, from 1.412 billion a year earlier, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) confirmed. The population includes China’s 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, as well as servicemen, but excludes foreigners. It does not include Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.

Chinese mothers gave birth to 10.62 million babies last year, an 11.5 per cent drop from 12 million in 2020, the NBS confirmed. The national birth rate fell to a record low of 7.52 births for every 1,000 people in 2021, from 8.52 in 2020.

The national death rate was 7.18 per thousand last year, putting the national growth rate at 0.34 per thousand.

“The most shocking part of the data release today is that the natural growth of the population has dropped to 0.34 per thousand, the first time below 1.0 since data become available,” said Zhang Zhiwei, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management. “The demographic challenge is well known, but the speed of population ageing is clearly faster than expected.

“This suggests China’s total population may have reached its peak in 2020. It also indicates China’s potential growth is likely slowing faster than expected.”

Chen Wei, a professor with the Population Development Studies Centre at Renmin University, said: “In the next 10 to 20 years, China’s natural population growth will not continue to decline, but will fluctuate around zero and see small drops, but there will not be rapid decreases.”

Earlier this month, Henan province, the country’s third-most-populous administrative region, reported that its number of newborns fell to 920,000 in 2020 – a 23.3 per cent decline from 2019 – as the provincial birth rate dropped to 9.24 births per 1,000 people.

“The pandemic has caused some people to lose their jobs or suffer pay cuts,” said He Yafu, an independent demographer. “A decrease in household income, in addition to the uncertainties that the pandemic has added to the future, further lowered young people’s willingness to give birth.”

Experts have warned that a demographic turning point may be just around the corner in the world’s most populous nation, and some say it threatens to erode the foundation of China’s booming economic growth over the past 40 years.

Beijing has already taken steps to curb the trend, such as by allowing couples to have a third child and by trying to reduce abortions for “non-medical” purposes.

Dozens of provincial and municipal authorities have also introduced their own initiatives to bump up fertility. These include giving parents more days off work, or even financial support, for having a second or third child.

“China’s total population will remain above 1.4 billion for a period of time to come,” said Ning Jizhe, deputy head of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the nation’s top economic planner. He added that the three-child policy is expected to gradually add births, while the national life expectancy is gradually increasing.

Additional demographic figures released on Monday include a year-on-year increase of 12.05 million permanent residents in urban areas, to 914.25 million. Meanwhile, there was a 11.57 million decrease in rural permanent residents, to 498.35 million.

“The share of urban population in the total population (urbanisation rate) was 64.72 per cent – 0.83 percentage points higher than that at the end of the previous year,” the NBS statement said.

China’s so-called “floating population”, featuring mostly migrant workers, reached 384.67 million in 2021, 8.85 million more than in 2020. And the population living in areas other than where they hold household registration, for at least six months, reached 504.29 million, or 11.53 million more than in 2020.