Is long-term negative population growth coming?

On Tuesday, China announced its first population decline in decades. What kind of far-fetching impact will it have on China's economic and social development?



January 18, 2023

BEIJINGEditor’s note: On Tuesday, China announced its first population decline in decades. What kind of far-fetching impact will it have on China’s economic and social development? Demographers share their views with China Daily’s Liu Jianna and Zhang Xi:

That China’s population decreased by 850,000 in 2022 is not surprising given that China’s fertility rate has remained lower than the replacement level since 1992. Replacement level fertility is the level of fertility at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next. In most countries, replacement level fertility can be taken as requiring an average of 2.1 children per woman. Partly because of longer period of education in China, people are getting married late and having children even later.

It is believed that the negative growth of China’s population is a natural outcome of long-term low fertility rate for decades. But contrary to popular opinion, I believe China is still seeing zero population growth, rather than negative growth. This is also because the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly suppressed childbirth in the past three years. For instance, people planning a baby were advised against getting vaccinated and those who had got infected were advised against planning a baby till six months after their nucleic acid test turned negative.

Besides, the effect of the three-child policy introduced in June 2021 remains to be seen. Furthermore, a pro-fertility policy system was written into the 20th CPC National Congress report, which indicates the government will do more to encourage childbirths in the coming years. More observation is needed before we can conclude that China has indeed entered a stage of negative population growth.

A dipping population will mainly affect the economy, through the size of labor force and the consumer market. If Chinese couples give birth to just one child, China would still have a 1.2 billion population by 2050, making it a market with a huge potential. Besides, China will still have 600-650 million people in the age group of 16-59 years by the middle of this century, larger than all the labor force in developed countries combined. So, China can still enjoy demographic dividends.

Yuan Xin, director and a professor of the Research Center for Strategic Studies on Aging and Development at Nankai University.

That China’s population has declined by 850,000 has sounded the alarm for the country’s socioeconomic development. Compared with 2010, China’s labor force has fallen by more than 10 percent in 2020. China’s demographic dividend is likely to shrink or even disappear in the next 5-6 years.

Yet it is extremely difficult to reverse the declining trend. The negative population growth is likely to become the new norm, requiring us to make full preparations and change our mindset and development mode for a relatively young society. The negative population growth will definitely impose a huge challenge to economic growth, especially to those heavily dependent on demographic dividends.

To promote childbirths, China should build a pro-childbirth system covering not just childbirth policies, but also love marriages, employment, housing, medical care and elderly care. Only by building an all-around pro-humanity system and environment, can we help boost willingness among couples to have babies.

Lu Jiehua, a professor of demography at Institute of Sociology and Anthropology, Peking University.

China’s overall population declined by 850,000 people year-on-year to 1.4118 billion in 2022, declining for the first time in the nearly past 61 years, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Tuesday. However, there is no need to be overly pessimistic.

First, the negative population growth can be attributed more to a shrinking fertility rate, rather than a slightly increasing mortality rate, both caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the last three years. The pandemic, which led to stressful working and living conditions for people, dented many people’s willingness to get into a relationship or marry. Since most Chinese people prefer having babies after tying the knot, fewer marriages mean a lower fertility rate. In addition, although China had a relatively low COVID-19 mortality rate, the lingering pandemic affected elderly people with underlying conditions. But it doesn’t mean China has a high excess mortality rate.

Second, the negative population growth in 2022 does not mean the situation will last. From a global perspective, a country has to first enter a period of zero-population growth before it moves toward a negative population growth. So China’s population declined last year more because of the pandemic, and the fertility and mortality rates will return to normal in the post-pandemic era.

Third, the country may see birth rates peaking in the coming years, which will be significant to the aging society, because the intertwined tensions and problems faced by couples will be solved when social life goes back to normal.

Li Jia, deputy head of the Aging Society Research Center at the Pangoal Institution.

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