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China economy

China’s birth rate falls again, with 2018 producing the fewest babies since 1961, official data shows

  • New births in China fell to 15.23 million last year, the lowest since China relaxed its one-child policy in 2014.
  • It also marks the lowest official birth rate in China since 1961, however there are widely held concerns about the historical data collection, experts said
PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 January, 2019, 3:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 January, 2019, 11:18pm

New births in China fell to 15.23 million last year, the lowest since China relaxed its one-child policy in 2014.

The dwindling birth rate is adding pressure to a shrinking labour pool and ageing population, casting a shadow over the country’s future economic outlook.

It also marks the lowest official birth rate in China since 1961 (11.87 million), the last year of China’s great famine, during which millions of people starved to death and the birth rate plummeted.

However there are widely held concerns about the historical data collection, experts said.

China officially allowed every couple to have two children three years ago, however the figure for 2018 undercuts the reading of 17.86 million in 2016 and 17.23 million in 2017, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

By that gauge, China’s birth rate dropped from 12.95 every 1,000 people in 2016 to 10.94 last year.

The drop in new births in China is set to continue. The female population in China aged between 15 and 49, which the NBS defines as “child-bearing age”, fell 4 million in 2017.

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The fact that people aged over 60 now account for 17.9 per cent of China’s 1.39 billion population adds to the huge demographic challenges facing the country.

This figure fuels concerns that China is moving towards a Japan-style economic stagnation. In China’s case the problem could run deeper, as the country is “getting old before getting rich”, a phrase widely used in Chinese state media.

The low fertility rate, partly a result of over three decades of ruthless birth control by Beijing, showed that the Chinese leadership was too optimistic about the incentive provided by its relaxed birth policy. In 2016, Beijing expected a baby boom in 2018 that would produce 21.88 million babies.

However, the latest figures will not come as a surprise to many economists and analysts which have been flagging low birth rates in cities that were traditionally among the most fertile in China, for a number of years.

Wenzhou, which has a thriving private economy, had a history of breaking the notorious “one-child” policy in the past. Many households would risk paying hefty fines to have more than one child.

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The city has the highest birth rate in Zhejiang province, in eastern China. But last year, the number of newborn babies dropped to 96,903, down 15.7 per cent from 2017, according to figures from Wenzhou government.

This is the first time since 2008 that the city’s annual newborns fell below 100,000.

In Ningbo, a port city also in Zhejiang, newborns fell by 16.98 per cent last year, compared to 2017.

The easterly province of Shandong produced 10 per cent of China’s total new population in 2017 (1.75 million) but in 2018, but preliminary data shows the birth rate is slowing.

The government of Qingdao, an economic powerhouse in Shandong, said in December that the number of babies born there had fallen by 21 per cent to about 81,000 over the first 11 months in 2018, with the number of second babies falling even faster than first borns.

The Qingdao government estimated that births for the full year would reach slightly over 90,000. It also lowered estimates for the next few years, from the range of 100,000 to 150,000 to 80,000 to 100,000.

In rural China, families have traditionally tended to have more children to support.

But in the populous and mountainous Huili County, in the southwesterly Sichuan province, the number of new babies reached only 4,093 last year, down 11 per cent from 2017.

“For China’s population, the biggest event in the first half of 21st century is the arrival of negative growth,” a January report from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said.

In 2016, the World Bank said that the average Chinese woman would have 1.624 children.

At that rate, the population will begin declining in 2027 and by 2065 it will fall to 1.17 billion, around the same size it was in 1990, according to CASS research.

The falling population is removing one of China’s biggest drivers of growth and experts have warned that the government must make it more affordable to have children, if it wants to redress this balance.

“The number of newborns will continue plunging even after the country completely revoked its birth policy, unless the Chinese leadership made great efforts to boost births such as lowering the cost of education significantly,” said Huang Wenzheng, co-founder of Cnpop.org, a non-profit organisation analysing China’s population and birth policies.