THE COMMUNIST PARTY has long known that, partly as the result of its brutal one-child policy, China’s population would soon peak and start to shrink. It has been startled, however, by how rapidly that moment has drawn near. Now, it looks as if it might have arrived.
In November the country completed its seventh ten-yearly census, and said it would announce the results in early April. As May arrives with no announcement, leaks have emerged suggesting that the results have not been published because they are so shocking, and the party is in a flap about how to break the news to a worried public. The Financial Times reported on April 27th that the census will show that the population has fallen below 1.4bn, still higher than the 1.34bn in the 2010 census, but lower than it was a year before. Leaks are sometimes wrong, or reflect early estimates which are later revised upwards. But if true, the new numbers raise worrying questions for the party.
Even before the official release of the census results, it is clear that China has a demographic problem. In 2015 the government somewhat relaxed the one-child policy, allowing most Chinese to have a second child. The birth rate briefly rose, but soon fell again. In 2019 the total number of new sprogs was the lowest since 1961, when a Mao-made famine killed millions and the population was half its present size.
A trickle of recent provincial data on birth numbers points in the same direction. Local figures on new birth registrations from all over China (separate from the census) offer a preview of what the census figures will probably show. For the first three quarters of 2020 Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province, reported a 32% fall in births compared with the previous year. In the city of Weifang in Shandong province, births were down by nearly 26% in the first half of the year. Hefty declines were reported in numerous other cities, with reporting periods that pre-date the coronavirus pandemic, thus ruling it out as a cause.
There are also indications that China’s total fertility rate (the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime) has dropped faster and further than previously thought. Chinese planners have assumed a rate of 1.8, but some Chinese scholars (and the World Bank) have pegged it in the range of 1.6 to 1.7. A working paper released in March by China’s central bank suggests the rate is no more than 1.5.
Such numbers make grim reading for the Communist Party. China’s working-age population, defined as those between 16 and 64 years old, has been falling since 2011. Meanwhile the share of people aged over 60 has risen from 10.4% in 2000 to 17.9% in 2018. The latest guess is that by 2050 one-third of Chinese will be in their 60s or older. Supporting them will put a huge burden on the young, unless the oldies can be persuaded to work longer. In a report published in 2019 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warned that China’s main pension fund could run out of money as soon as 2035.
A second demographic worry is the continued imbalance between men and women. Since the 1980s birth restrictions, combined with a strong cultural preference for boys and easy access to prenatal ultrasound scans, led to the widespread abortion of girls. In 2019 there were about 30m more Chinese men than women and the disparity in the number who are of marriageable age will continue to grow. The government worries that young men with no prospect of finding a mate may become a source of unrest.
Low birth rates will put more pressure on the party to abandon all its coercive birth-control policies. Fines still apply for having more than two babies, though the strictness of enforcement varies widely. Lately the loudest calls for this have come from officials in the three down-at-heel provinces that comprise China’s north-eastern rustbelt. In recent years birth rates in Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning have been only about half the national average.
In February China’s National Health Commission said those three provinces could begin studies that might lead them to become the first parts of China to allow people to decide for themselves how many children they have. That is a right people in other countries take for granted, and for families that yearn for more than two children, it will be a blessing. But it may not do much to boost the region’s overall birth rate, or its flagging economy. A sociologist notes that local youngsters are fleeing to parts of China with better weather and more jobs.
“Most people want no baby or at most one baby, so even if you remove all the limits right now, it won’t have much effect,” says Zhang Xiaochen of Duke Kunshan University. Chinese have grown accustomed to the idea of a small family. High costs for housing, health and education further discourage fecundity.
Child-rearing out of wedlock is both socially unacceptable and officially discouraged, even as young Chinese are delaying marriage or shunning it entirely. Last year the number of nuptials fell by 12% to a little over 8m, the lowest since 2003 and well down on the peak of 13.5m in 2013. In 2005 almost half of those who got hitched did so between the ages of 20 and 24; in 2019 only about one-fifth did so. Chinese laws prevent unmarried women from undergoing in-vitro fertilisation, or freezing their eggs for use in the future.
Officials are growing increasingly keen on policies such as cash payments to encourage parents to have a second child. But evidence from the 50 or so other countries that are trying to boost birth rates suggests that this is difficult. Providing affordable and desirable childcare is perhaps the most effective way governments can increase fertility. But that is much more costly and complex to deliver than the smallish “baby bonuses” some Chinese local governments now hand out.
The growing tendency of officials to talk of child-rearing as a duty to society annoys many young couples. Some suspect that demographic worries lie behind changes to divorce laws which came into force on January 1st. They require divorcing couples to wait until after a 30-day cooling-off period.
James Liang, an economist at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, believes that China’s distorted demographics will limit the size of its market and talent pool, and thus hinder its rise. China will never accept significant numbers of immigrants, so America will have a big advantage, he says. In the next ten or 20 years, China will continue to do well, but then America “will retake leadership and China will never catch up”.
The falling birth rate will bring forward another battle. A five-year economic plan announced in October includes vague plans to increase China’s retirement ages, which in cities is currently 60 for all men, 55 for white-collar women and 50 for blue-collar women, well below the rich-country average of 64. That will be deeply unpopular. And lengthening working lives also risks driving fertility down further, because many families rely on grandparents for childcare. There are no easy ways out.