The number of newborn babies in China sunk to a near six-decade low last year, reinforcing worries about the cost of a lower birth rate on the economy and the country’s ability to support its rapidly ageing population in the year ahead. Chinese mothers gave birth to 14.65 million babies last year, down from 15.23 million in 2018, according to data from National Bureau of Statistics released on Friday. Last year’s figure was the lowest since 1961. China’s overall population continued to grow, rising to 1.4 billion at the end of the year from 1.39 billion a year earlier. The weak birth data was within the expectations of many veteran demographers who for years called for the Chinese government to abandon its one-child birth policy – which ended in 2016 – because of the damage it would do to future economic growth and the nation’s ability to support its ageing population. Fewer births mean fewer wage earners and fewer consumers in the future. In 2019, China’s economy grew 6.1 per cent from a year earlier, the lowest since 1990, according to the NBS. The working aged population between 16 and 59 years old was 896.4 million at the end of last year, accounting for 64 per cent of the total population. The number of Chinese aged over 60 was 253.8 million, or some 18 per cent of the national total. The new figures also proved that the benefits from China’s decision to relax its birth restrictions have fallen well short of expectations. After Beijing allowed Chinese couples to have two children from 2016, the new birth rose briefly to 17.86 million in 2016 but has fallen every year since. Demographers have claimed that China’s birth numbers were overstated over the decade to 2016 to delay loosening of the one-child policy. A lack of public information from the local levels made it more difficult to double-check official figures. Sometimes official data has been contradictory. The National Health Commission, which carries out national birth policy, publishes an annual yearbook that includes birth data collected from local hospitals. In last year’s version, the total number of live births in 2018 was listed at around 15.21 billion, which was not far from NBS’s estimated 15.23 million based on a national survey. But adding up provincial data produced a total of 13.62 million live births in the same yearbook. The lack of explanation only added to scepticism over the quality of official data. “Demographic data are sacred. But China’s birth numbers are very sloppy and highly influenced by politics,” said Yi Fuxian, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a long-time critic of China’s birth policy. Chongqing, a provincial-level municipality in western China, is one of very few places that releases monthly birth data collected from hospitals. From January to November last year, Chongqing had 255,692 new babies, down 0.02 per cent from a year earlier. But in June alone, it reported 66,862 newborn children, close to the total number of births from the previous five months combined, leading experts to suspect that local officials were manipulating data to match an official target. Last year, Beijing asked local governments to get a clear picture of births in their jurisdictions, but few have published their reports. In an August report from the Tongling municipal government in eastern Anhui province, the number of new babies dropped 8 per cent in the first half of the year from a year earlier, with the number of the second born lower than first born. Ren Zeping, chief economist from Evergrande, wrote in a recent article that the government should fully liberalise birth policy before it is too late. According to his calculation, between 2013 and 2028, the number of child bearing women aged between 20 and 35 will fall by 30 per cent. “The one-child policy was originally planned to be implemented for 30 years since 1980, but some people estimated that the two-child policy would bring the birth number to the peak of 49.95 million, repeatedly delaying the timing of policy adjustments,” Ren said. China is still not ready to completely let go of its birth restrictions . Last fall, top leaders concluded that the birth policy needed only to be “optimised” because the two-child policy had not reached its full potential. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.