Incredibly shrinking China is an age-old problem

The population is predicted to fall by more than one-half to around 525 million by 2100

China’s population has shrunk for the second year in a row.

The National Bureau of Statistics reports just 9.02 million births in 2023 – only half as many as in 2017. Set alongside China’s 11.1 million deaths last year, up 500,000 on 2022, it means the population shrank 2.08 million in 2023 after falling 850,000 in 2022.

That is a loss of about three million in two years.

The two consecutive declines are the first since the great famine of 1959-1961, and the trend is accelerating.

Updated low-scenario projections from a research team at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, one of the first to predict the 2022 turndown, have China’s population shrinking from its present 1.4 billion to just 525 million by 2100.

The country’s working-age population is projected to fall to just 210 million by 2100 – a mere one-fifth of its peak in 2014. Yet the death rate is climbing as an inevitable result of the population aging and also an upsurge of Covid-19 in the first few months of 2023.

Fertility rates

As for the falling birth rate, China’s numbers were fairly flat at about 1.66 between 1991 and 2017 under Beijing’s one-child policy. But it then fell to 1.28 in 2020, to 1.08 in 2022.

Now, it is around one, which is way below the level of 2.1 generally thought necessary to sustain a population.

By way of comparison, Australia and the United States have fertility rates of 1.6. In 2023, South Korea had the world’s lowest rate, 0.72.

Total fertility rate | children per women
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China abandoned its one-child policy in 2016. In 2021, the country introduced a three-child policy, backed by tax and other incentives.

But births are continuing to fall. In part, this is because the one-child policy cut the number of women of childbearing age, as well as economic pressures making parenthood less attractive.

The National Bureau of Statistics reported that employees of enterprises work an average of 49 hours per week, more than nine hours per day. Women graduates earn less than men and are increasingly postponing having children.

One hope is that 2024 will see a bump in births, being the Year of the Dragon in Chinese astrology, a symbol of good fortune.

Some families may have chosen to postpone childbirth during the less auspicious year of the rabbit in 2023. At least one study has identified such an effect.

Working age

The same research team at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and the Centre for Policy Studies at Australia’s Victoria University have China’s population falling by more than one-half to around 525 million by 2100.

The working-age population is set to fall more sharply to 210 million.

We now expect the number of Chinese aged 65 and older to overtake the number of Chinese of traditional working age in 2077, three years earlier than previously.

By 2100, we expect every 100 Chinese of traditional working age to have to support 137 elderly citizens, up from just 21 at present.

China’s population and projections | low scenario
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Our central scenario assumes China’s fertility rate will recover, climbing slowly to 1.3. Our low scenario assumes it will decline further to 0.88 over the next decade and then gradually recover to 1.0 by 2050 before holding steady.

We have based our assumptions on observations of actual total fertility rates in China’s region and their downward trend. In 2022, these rates hit 1.26 in Japan, 1.04 in Singapore, 0.87 in Taiwan, 0.8 in Hong Kong, and 0.78 in South Korea.

In none of these countries has fertility rebounded, despite government efforts. These trends point to what demographers call the “low-fertility trap,” which becomes hard to lift once it falls below 1.5 or 1.4.

At present accounting for one-sixth of the world’s population, China’s accelerated decline will bring forward the day when the world’s population peaks by one year to 2083.

Government spending

It will also weaken China’s economy and, through it, the world’s economy.

It will put downward pressure on consumer spending and upward pressure on wages and government spending. As the world’s second-largest economy, this weakness will present challenges to the global economic recovery.

Xiujian Peng is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre of Policy Studies at the Victoria University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.