State of Play

Cracks are starting to appear in China’s human Great Wall

Beijing faces a massive challenge dealing with an aging population and low birth rate

China’s Great Wall of humanity is crumbling.

Data released by the National Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday showed that population growth slowed to levels not seen since the 1950s.

The stark numbers from the 2020 census revealed there were 1.41 billion Chinese citizens, a 5.38% rise from 2010 but below the 5.8% jump a decade ago. 

“Population growth will continue to slow in the future,” Ning Jizhe, the director of the National Bureau of Statistics, told a media briefing.

The facts:

  • Population growth has been slowing for decades since the one-child policy in the 1970s.
  • In 2016, Beijing scrapped it with a two-child strategy.
  • But surging living costs and lifestyle choices mean that twenty-something urban couples are more interested in keeping their independence than having children.
  • As for the numbers, there were 12 million babies born in 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. 
  • That was down from a previously reported 14.65 million in 2019. 
  • The fertility rate of 1.3 last year was lower than an earlier target of 1.8.
  • Overall, the working-age population, or people between the ages of 15 and 59, was 894.4 million.
  • In 2010, the census calculated that it was 939.6 million.
  • Citizens aged 60 and above accounted for 18.7% of the population in 2020 compared to 13.3% in 2010.

What was said: “The further aging of the population imposed continued pressure on the long-term balanced development of the population in the coming period,” Ning, the director of the National Bureau of Statistics, said at his media briefing.

Reaction to the news: “It’s less important when [China] clicks over to population decline. What’s more important is how much [that] population adapts to an era of no growth,” Stuart Gietel-Basten, of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said as reported by the CNN network.

Numbers game: Beijing policy wonks have made an art form of manipulating data. As the Financial Times reported last month: “People close to the [the National Bureau of Statistics] said the initial population figure came in at less than 1.4 billion but was revised up.”

China Factor comment: Communist Party government apologists tend to wear red-tinted glasses when discussing the economic miracle. There is usually no place in the narrative for creaking health care centers or the fate of the elderly. In the decades to come, Beijing will need to spend hundreds of billions of yuan to expand and update hospitals and urban retirement homes to cater to an aging population in the hundreds of millions.

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