February 21, 2023
BEIJING – At least six provincial-level regions that are major sources of migrant workers or less-developed hinterlands saw their population grow last year, despite the historic decline of the country’s total population in 2022, according to data released recently.
Experts attributed the atypical rise in these regions to more workers having returned to their hometowns amid the COVID-19 epidemic and job seekers being attracted by employment opportunities there.
The mainland’s total population dropped by 850,000 last year, the first decline seen in more than six decades. The historic decline was caused by the falling annual number of newborns, a low willingness to have babies, and delays in marriage and childbearing, said officials and experts.
However, a few provincial-level regions reported opposite results for the past year. The eastern province of Jiangxi said on Jan 19 that it had about 45.3 million long-term residents by the end of 2022, up by 105,800 year-on-year. Population in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in South China increased by 100,000, and Guizhou province in Southwest China saw its population rise by 40,000.
In addition, the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, as well as the northwestern provinces of Gansu and Qinghai, each registered an increase of 9,000 to 20,000, local data shows.
Their increases in population are more related to migration flows — the difference between people moving in and moving out — rather than natural growth, the difference between births and deaths, said Yuan Xin, a professor at Nankai University.
Data shows that all six provincial-level regions reported fewer newborns in 2022 than the previous year. Among them, deaths outnumbered births in Gansu and Chongqing and neared that of newborns in Jiangxi and Guangxi. Only Qinghai and Guizhou registered a natural population growth rate of higher than 3 per 1,000 people.
“Taking Jiangxi, a major exporter of labor force, as an example, its natural growth rate is positive but very low. The province took strict anti-virus measures for the majority of 2022, and many people intending to migrate out had decided to stay in their hometown. The phenomenon resulted in the unusual increase in its population,” Yuan said during an interview with People’s Daily.
He added that Sichuan province and Chongqing have maintained strong economic development in recent years. An increase in local job positions has helped retain local workers and appealed to talent from outside the region.
Qu Yan, a researcher at an institute administered by Chongqing’s development and reform commission, said during an interview with local media that the city’s economic power, quality of public services and living environment have improved, drawing more nonnatives to settle down in the city.
“In addition, more migrant workers have returned to look for jobs or start a business,” she said, adding that COVID-19 travel restrictions had diminished labor demand in developed coastal regions.
Experts said such trend-bucking increases resulting from migration flows won’t be long-lasting and cannot be expected to occur on a national level.
Huang Kuangshi, a researcher at the China Population and Development Research Center, said that with the optimization of China’s anti-COVID measures, migrant workers will likely leave their hometowns again and head for more-developed regions in eastern China.
Yuan, the Nankai University professor, said it is unsuitable to rely on immigration to lift population based on the national condition. “The only feasible and sustainable method to tackle negative population growth is increasing fertility levels,” he said.
China rolled out a guideline to encourage births in August 2022, pledging comprehensive measures in the finance, taxation, insurance, education, housing and employment sectors.
Yuan said that so far, these incentives cannot offset common impediments to having babies, such as high pressure in life and work-places and changing perspectives on family and procreation.
“Decades of experiences in developed countries have shown that boosting fertility requires tremendous efforts and costs, and no country has managed to raise fertility promptly and substantially,” he said. “Raising fertility is bound to be a long process.”
Shi Ruipeng in Nanning contributed to this story.