China's population falls for the first time in over six decades

The decline has come faster than the governments predicted. Will this change China's stance?
Ameya Paleja
The busy streets of Hong Kong stock photo.
The busy streets of Hong Kong stock photo.


Population in China has dipped for the first time in over 60 years, as per data released by the National Bureau of Statistics today. The country that had 1.41260 billion people in 2021 now has 1.41175 billion at the end of 2022. The small difference in decimals here is actually a difference of 850,000 people on the ground.

The decline in China's population comes in the backdrop of the country reeling under an intense wave of COVID-19 infections after letting go of its 'zero-COVID' policy. According to a CNBC report, nearly 60,000 people died due to COVID between December 8, 2022, and January 12, 2023.

These deaths cannot single-handedly account for the large drop in the population, thereby confirming what population experts have been long predicting: China is set to see a period of negative population growth.

How China's population declined

China implemented the one-child policy as its population nearly doubled in a period of thirty years to cross the one billion mark. Shaped by fears of overpopulation, China's policy was implemented by enforcing cash fines on families as well as mandatory use of contraception or even sterilization in some cases.

Years of government policy led to the population coming under control. However, changing macroeconomic conditions alongside policy implementation have now led to the population entering a phase of decline. Rising costs of housing, education, and healthcare in the country, where 65 percent of the population stays in cities, have made even falling in love harder for most, let alone getting married or having children, commented a user on the social media site Weibo.

In 2022, the birth rate dropped to 6.77 births per 1000 people, the lowest on record, down from 7.52 births a year earlier. More than a million fewer births were registered in the year, as against over 10.62 million in 2021.

At the same time, the country also logged the highest death rate since 1976, registering 7.37 deaths per 1,000 people, a report by The Guardian said.

What China plans to do next

A period of population decline will eventually a larger number of people in the aging population bracket against those of working age. In a country like China, this is associated with higher spending from the government on pensions and old age care, weakening plans for economic growth.

China has recognized this in the last decade and, after scrapping its one-child policy, even added financial incentives for families to have more children. However, the support from the government was not sufficient to reverse the trend completely and China has entered a period of population decline.

What makes it worse is that the decline was expected to happen in the next decade but now has occurred earlier. While this is not expected to impact China's labor supply anytime soon, it also means that China's calculations on its economics, defense, and foreign policies were based on faulty demographic data in the past.

YI Fuxian, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the U.S. and an advocate for abolishing the one-child policy, expects China to undergo a strategic contraction and adjust its policies. That could also mean improving relations with the West, he wrote on Twitter.

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