China’s population has decreased for the first time in more than 60 years, official data shows — a historic turn for the world’s most populous nation that is now expected to see a long period of population decline.
The country of 1.4 billion has seen birth rates plunge to record lows as its workforce ages, a drop that analysts warn could stymie economic growth and pile pressure on the country’s strained public finances.
The mainland Chinese population stood at approximately 1,411,750,000 at the end of 2022, Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported on Tuesday, a decrease of 850,000 from the end of the previous year.
The number of births was 9.56 million, the NBS said, while the number of deaths stood at 10.41 million. Men also continued to outnumber women in China by 722.06 million to 689.69 million.
The new figures mark the first fall in China’s population since 1961, when the country battled the worst famine in its modern history, caused by Mao Zedong’s disastrous agricultural policy known as the Great Leap Forward.
China has long been the world’s most populous nation, but is expected to soon be overtaken by India, if it has not already.
Estimates put India’s population at more than 1.4 billion.
The head of the NBS, Kang Yi, said people should not worry about China’s population decline as the country’s overall labour supply still exceeds demand.
Though China ended its strict “one-child policy” in 2016 and in 2021 allowed couples to have three children, the policy change has not reversed the demographic decline.
In the long term, United Nations experts believe, China’s population could reduce by 109 million by the year 2050, more than triple the decline of their previous forecast in 2019.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said China has tried many initiatives to avoid a “demographic crisis”, including dropping the one-child policy and increasing parental leave as well as subsidies. However, such efforts do not appear to have worked.
“If we delve further into the figures it says that China’s birth rate was 6.77 births per 1,000 people and its death rate has climbed to the highest that it’s ever been as well,” she said.
While “health authorities have been scratching their heads” and asking why people are having fewer children, Yu said major reasons appear to involve the rising costs of living in Chinese cities and the COVID-19 pandemic response.
“I think one of the reasons is the soaring cost of living here in China, especially in the cities when it comes to housing, when it comes to education, people are delaying marriage or choosing not to get married or not to have children at all,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic was also a significant factor as China has just emerged from a three-year, strict “zero-COVID” policy that involved “huge uncertainty” and disruption to people’s lives. People were choosing not to have children or expand their families during that time, Yu said.
The economic effect of a declining population is also a prime concern for China, as for decades, the country’s large working-age population — almost 70 percent of people in 2010 — was the engine behind growth in the economy.