China’s population shrank last year for the first time since the immediate aftermath of a devastating famine in the Mao era, in a clear sign that the country is facing a looming demographic crisis worsened by decades of coercive policy that limited most families to a single child.
The National Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday announced a decline of 850,000 people to a new total population of 1.4118 billion — the first such decline in 60 years. The birthrate reached its lowest level on record at 6.77 per 1,000 people, down from 7.52 in 2021.
The last time China’s population declined was in 1961, after three years of famine caused by Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward industrial policy, along with floods and drought.
The government’s efforts to reverse the falling birthrate began in earnest in 2016, when it ended the one-child-per-family rule, placing the restriction at two children instead. But neither that revision nor a 2021 adjustment to allow three children has slowed the downward trend.
China faces a shrinking workforce that will struggle to support a rapidly aging population. Its centuries-old position as the most populous nation in the world is likely to be assumed by India this year, according to U.N. projections.
Starting in the 1970s, Communist leaders’ fears of an expanding population outstripping food supply led to a campaign telling families to marry later, wait between children and have fewer offspring overall. The birthrate fell dramatically.
But the Chinese leadership remained terrified of an oversized population. Its solution was the draconian one-child policy, implemented in 1980. The policy resulted in mass forced abortions, sterilizations and the insertion of intrauterine devices.
Among the policy’s many unintended consequences has been a steep gender imbalance, as pregnant women had sex-selective abortions. That resulted in China having a sex ratio of 104.69 men to every 100 women as of 2022.
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A society built around the single-child household also provides only limited child-care support. In multiple surveys, respondents regularly cite the rising costs of a large family as the primary reason not to have more children.
This is especially true for Chinese people who live in large cities, many of whom have radically different beliefs about marriage and giving birth compared with their parents’ generation. Other oft-cited concerns include a lack of easily available child care and lower wages for women after giving birth.
Working professionals also face fewer and less attractive job prospects as China’s decades of rapid economic growth come to an end. Amid government crackdowns on technology industries and excessive wealth, working as a civil servant has suddenly become attractive because it is perceived as a stable career.
Officials also announced on Tuesday that gross domestic product grew by only 3 percent last year, as regular disruptions from “zero covid” policies hurt consumption at the same time that the critical real estate sector contracted. The expansion was drastically smaller than the 5.5 percent that authorities had targeted. Unemployment among 16-to-24-year-olds remained high, at 16.7 percent for the year, after reaching nearly 20 percent in July.
Harsh lockdowns added to the malaise among young Chinese people. A video of a Shanghai resident telling coronavirus prevention workers that “we are the last generation” went viral in May, with many online saying how the phrase captured a sense of desperation they, too, felt about the lack of a desirable future into which they might bring offspring.