China is currently facing a significant demographic challenge, as its population has been declining for the past two years. This decline is a result of a combination of factors, including a record-low birth rate and an increase in the number of deaths, particularly due to Covid-19. The implications of this trend are far-reaching, affecting China’s economy, society, and global standing.
At the end of last year, China’s total population stood at 1.409 billion, down by more than 2 million from 2022. This decrease is more than double the decline of 850,000 from 2021 to 2022, which was China’s first population decline in six decades. The birthrate dropped to 6.39 per thousand, with only 9 million newborns, a reduction of over half a million from the previous year and the lowest figure since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949.
A major contributing factor to this decline is the record number of deaths in China. Last year, there were over 11 million deaths, the most since 1974, when China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. A study from the U.S. found that there were almost 2 million excess deaths in early 2023, following the lifting of China’s three-year “zero-Covid” restrictions. This policy change unleashed the coronavirus on a population that had barely been exposed to it, leading to a significant spike in fatalities.
The reasons behind the declining birth rate are multifaceted. Young people in China are reluctant to start families due to several societal and economic pressures. As the Economist Intelligence Unit’s principal economist, Su Yue, explains, “Roughly a third of the children born in 2023 were conceived in 2022, when many were not able to reunite with their families due to the policies during the pandemic… All of this actually happened in 2022, but the impact was reflected in 2023.” This reflects the delayed effect of the pandemic on family planning and childbearing decisions.
Other factors contributing to the reluctance to have children include the high cost of living, lack of work-life balance, and the persistence of traditional gender roles. The economic concerns are particularly acute, with the millions of graduates leaving universities each year struggling to find jobs that match their skills. The unemployment rate for people aged 16 to 24 was 14.9% in December, not including those in school. This rate had reached record highs of over 20% the previous summer.
The Chinese government has recognized the urgency of the situation and has been trying to encourage childbirth through various measures. These include easing strict family planning policies, introducing tax breaks, child care subsidies, and other incentives. Despite these efforts, the public response has been lukewarm, with the number of newborns declining every year since peaking in 2016 at 17.86 million. Marriage rates are also at historic lows, further exacerbating the population decline.
China’s aging population is another significant concern. In 2023, the proportion of people over 65 in China was 15.4%, meeting the United Nations’ definition of an “aged society.” This aging demographic poses challenges for labor supply and increases the demand for elder care and health services. The Chinese government is trying to address this by encouraging investment in the “silver economy,” focusing on goods and services tailored to the needs of older people.
China’s efforts to interfere with population with the 1980 “one child policy” has backfired. China realizes that this massive breach of human rights was a mistake for a whole variety of reasons. And now they will us the same authoritarian methods to try to produce more children. This may seem strange and alien to us who have live with individual human rights.