China's population declines for 2nd year with record low birth rate
China's population fell for the second consecutive year in 2023, driven by a record low birth rate and a surge in COVID-19 deaths following the end of strict lockdowns.
The National Bureau of Statistics reported a 0.15% decrease, with the total population dropping by 2.08 million to 1.409 billion. This decline surpassed the 850,000 decrease in 2022, the first since the Great Famine of the Mao Zedong era in 1961.
A dramatic COVID-19 surge early last year followed three years of tight screening and quarantine measures. Total deaths in 2023 rose 6.6% to 11.1 million, the highest death rate since 1974 during the Cultural Revolution. New births decreased by 5.7% to 9.02 million, with a record low birth rate of 6.39 births per 1,000 people.
The one-child policy, in effect from 1980 to 2015, and rapid urbanization have led to a long-term decline in births. Urban living, where raising children is more costly, has deterred many from starting families. Japan and South Korea faced similar trends, with birth rates of 6.3 and 4.9 per 1,000 people, respectively, in 2022.
University of Michigan demographer Zhou Yun noted that reversing fertility decline in low-fertility countries is often challenging. In China, record-high youth unemployment, falling wages for many white-collar workers, and a deepening crisis in the property sector have further dampened the desire for having children.
These developments raise concerns about China's economic growth prospects, as fewer workers and consumers and the rising costs of elderly care strain local governments. India surpassed China as the world's most populous nation last year, according to the United Nations. This shift has sparked discussions about relocating some China-based supply chains, especially amidst rising geopolitical tensions between Beijing and Washington.
U.N. experts predict China's population will shrink by 109 million by 2050, a more than threefold increase from the 2019 forecast. In 2023, about 21.1% of China's population was aged 60 and over, up from 2022. The retirement-age population is expected to exceed 400 million by 2035.
The state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences predicts the pension system could run out of money by 2035. Zhu Guoping, a 57-year-old farmer, expressed concerns about his meager savings and the insufficiency of his future pension.
To encourage childbirth, local governments have introduced various incentives, including tax deductions, extended maternity leave, and housing subsidies. However, implementation has been slow due to funding shortages and local government disinterest. A Beijing policy institute has called for a unified nationwide family subsidy scheme.
Beijing resident Wang Weidong commented that he and his wife are hesitant to have a second child, citing that incentives alone are not enough to reverse the declining birth trend. He pointed out that the high costs of childcare and education, along with job market uncertainties, are major deterrents. Additionally, gender discrimination and traditional expectations for women to assume caretaking roles exacerbate the issue.
President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of cultivating a new culture of marriage and childbearing linked to national development. Despite these efforts, the trend of declining births poses significant challenges for China's long-term economic and social stability.