2022 marked a period of demographic decline for China for the first time in 60 years and the famines of the Great Leap Forward. This unprecedented phenomenon is a slap in the face to Xi Jinping and is expected to have a significant impact on the Chinese economy. Indeed, this decline signals the magnitude of the demographic challenge facing China, the world’s second-largest economy whose growth has fallen to 3%.
A decline for the first time in 60 years
The world’s most populous country saw its population fall by 850,000 in 2022 due to a low birth rate. Indeed, last year the number of births was only 9.56 million in mainland China while 10.41 million deaths were recorded. The combination of these two phenomena has resulted in a population decrease of 850,000 people according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
This demographic decline is occurring earlier than the official projections which estimated it between 2025 and 2030. The demographic crisis is therefore “much darker than expected” according to Chinese demographer Yi Fuxian, researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On the other hand, Fuxian explains that China’s population has already been declining since 2018 and that this trend could worsen in 2023.
Moreover, this demographic decline is expected to be long-lasting according to United Nations projections which predict a sharp decline in the Chinese population throughout the century. According to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, the Chinese population could halve by 2100 to 587 million inhabitants.
Reasons for this decline
This demographic slowdown can be explained by many factors.
In the first place the one-child policy. This policy was imposed by Beijing between 1980 and 2015 and helped limit the number of children couples could have. Although this policy was relaxed in 2015 to allow couples to have 2 children, it had a significant impact on the birth rate in China, reducing the size of the Chinese population. The impact of this policy persists as the majority of Chinese people remain faithful or forced for economic reasons to the one-child policy imposed for several decades by the Chinese authorities.
Furthermore, the fertility rate has dropped dramatically in recent decades in China. During the 1950s and 1960s, China had one of the highest fertility rates in the world with an average of more than 6 children per woman. Today, the number of children per woman in China is 1.15 by 2022.
On the other hand, the high cost of education and the rising cost of living discourage many Chinese from starting a family. Indeed, many Chinese families feel unable to provide for their possible children. Financial pressure, economic uncertainty and strong competition for places in quality schools all contribute to the high cost of education and discourage Chinese people from having children.
In addition, the aging of the population has contributed to this demographic decline as birth rates have declined more rapidly than death rates, resulting in an increase in the proportion of elderly people in the Chinese population. Also, the aging of the population has led to a decline in the fertility rate due to the advanced age of potential parents as well as an increase in mortality because elderly people are more prone to age-related diseases and health disorders.
Moreover, the higher education level of women in China contributes to the decline of the Chinese population. Women with higher levels of education tend to marry later, focus more on their careers and postpone having a child. Furthermore, women with higher levels of education are more likely to have access to effective contraception which allows them to better control their fertility.
Finally, it is extremely likely that Covid and its successive lockdowns have played an important role in the decline of the Chinese birth rate and have encouraged Chinese families to postpone birth projects until better days. This is the thesis developed by the journalist Yvaine Ye who reports in the scientific journal Nature on August 25, 2022, that there were 45% fewer babies in China in November and December 2020 compared to the last two months of 2015. She concludes that Covid played a major role in the recent decline of the Chinese birth rate.