Beijing just announced its first population decline in decades amid plummeting birthrates and mounting concerns of the aging population becoming increasingly apparent in the world’s largest nation, spelling the end of its unparalleled economic rise.
Based on the numbers of the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics, it was reported on Tuesday that the population of mainland China at the end of 2022 was 850,000 less than the previous year, excluding Hong Kong, Macao, and foreign residents. The bureau stated that there were 9.56 million births and 10.41 million deaths in the country last year, resulting in a total population of 1.41 billion people.
The main reason for the negative demographic trend includes China’s decades-long one-child policy which only began to be gradually removed after 2014—replaced first by selective rules, then by a two- and three-child limit, then to be finally scrapped in 2021. The law, combined with a traditional preference for male offspring, also resulted in a massive gender imbalance in the country, as there are currently over 32 million more men than women whose weak prospects of starting a family further exacerbates the demographic problem.
Another factor is that China might have gone through industrialization and urbanization too rapidly. As a rule, regardless of what country, fertility drops massively as a result of large population movement into the cities. Even though Beijing repeatedly ran campaigns to encourage families to have more children since eliminating the one-child policy, it bore little to no success, and many suspect that the high costs of raising a child in the cities might be the reason.
China’s eventual population decline certainly does not come as a surprise—only the pace of it. Even though, as a result of the one-child policy, Chinese birth rates had been gradually falling since the late 1960s and dipping below replacement level in the early 1990s, both the Chinese official estimate and the United Nations projections anticipated Chinese population growth not to turn negative for another 9-10 years.
According to Yi Fuxian, a demographer and Chinese population-trends expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this signals that a “real demographic crisis is beyond imagination and that all of China’s past economic, social, defense, and foreign policies were based on faulty demographic data.”
Based on his own research, Yi added, even these new numbers seem to be somewhat skewed. By his calculations, the Chinese population has actually been in decline since 2018. Regardless of the exact date, Beijing will have to deal with a catastrophic population crisis in the coming decades as its rapidly aging population will bring about a severe economic crisis as well, possibly much worse than Japan’s, Yi said. “China has become older before it has become rich,” he added, highlighting the core problem.
The Chinese demographic decline will not only have domestic consequences. The unfolding economic crisis will eventually impact international trade and global supply chains, and will likely have a profound effect on regional geopolitical movements and global power balance. If the Chinese economy will have to deal with the fallout of a sustained crisis of this sort, it will inevitably affect its strategic outlook on regional and global competitors such as the United States, the European Union, or India—the country that is projected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country this year (if it hasn’t already).
In relation to the West, whose demographic challenges have long been apparent as well but are more ahead in development, it appears for now that the ‘Chinese century’ might be postponed.