This story has been made freely available to our readers. Please consider supporting SCMP’s journalism by subscribing. Mainland China’s population grew last year, results of the once-in-a-decade census released on Tuesday showed, although the number of new births fell for the fourth consecutive year in 2020. According to the seventh national population census conducted at the end of last year, China’s overall population rose to 1.412 billion in 2020, from 1.4 billion a year earlier, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) confirmed at an eagerly awaited press conference in Beijing. Chinese mothers gave birth to 12 million babies last year, down from 14.65 million in 2019, the NBS confirmed, marking an 18 per cent decline year on year and continuing the descent to a near six-decade low. The census data also show some structural contradictions facing the country’s population development, such as the decline in the size of the working-age population and women of childbearing age Ning Jizhe China’s fertility rate was 1.3 children per woman, which is below the replacement level of 2.1 – the rate needed for a stable population – and close to that of Japan. The NBS added that the average number of children that a Chinese woman was willing to have last year was 1.8. “The census data also show some structural contradictions facing the country’s population development, such as the decline in the size of the working-age population and women of childbearing age, the deepening of the ageing degree, the decline in the total fertility rate, and the downturn in the number of births,” said NBS commissioner Ning Jizhe. At the end of last month, the NBS released a statement denying a Financial Times report that the population of the world’s second-largest economy fell last year, which would have been the first decline since 1961. Demographers still believe China’s population is likely to begin declining in the next few years, after rising to 1.4 billion in 2019 from 1.39 billion a year earlier. Compared with the sixth national population census conducted in 2010, the 2020 figure increased by 5.38 per cent from 1.340 billion. The annual growth rate was 0.53 per cent, down by 0.04 percentage points compared with the average growth rate of 0.57 per cent from 2000 to 2010, according to the NBS. Between 2010 and 2020, the annual population growth on average of 0.53 per cent was the slowest growth of any decade since China’s first census in 1953. “The data showed that the population of China maintained a mild growth momentum in the past decade,” the NBS said. The mainland population refers to people living in the 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government and servicemen of the Chinese mainland, excluding residents of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan and foreigners, the NBS explained. “China’s population growth rate will continue to slow down, while it will also be affected by economic and social factors such as age structure, fertility concepts, fertility policies, fertility costs and public health. China’s population will reach its peak in the future, but the exact time is still uncertain,” added NBS commissioner Ning. “It is expected that within the next period of time, China’s population is likely to keep above 1.4 billion.” The data showed that the number of Chinese children 14 years or younger rose to 253.38 million in the 2020 census, or 17.95 per cent of the population, up from 1.35 percentage points from the previous census in 2010. “The share of children rose again, proving that the adjustment of China’s fertility policy has achieved positive results,” the NBS said, in apparent reference to the implementation of the two-child policy in 2016. However, the share of the population soon to be or already at working age declined. There were 894.38 million people in the age group between 15 and 59, 63.35 per cent of the population, down 6.79 percentage points from the previous census in 2010. And, as expected, the share of Chinese senior citizens expanded. There were 264.02 million citizens aged 60 and older, equivalent to 18.70 per cent of the population, 5.44 percentage points higher than in 2010. Of the latter group, there were 190.64 million people aged 65 or older, 13.50 per cent of the population, the NBS said, without giving a comparison to 2010. “The further ageing of the population imposed continued pressure on the long-term balanced development of the population in the coming period,” the NBS statement said. The gender ratio of males to females stood at 105.07 in 2020, “basically the same level with a slight decline compared with that in 2010”, the NBS said. There were 723.34 million male Chinese in 2020, or 51.24 per cent of the population, compared with 688.44 million females, or 48.76 per cent. The gender ratio at birth was 111.3, down 6.8 points from 2010, showing that the gender composition of China “continued to improve”, the NBS said. The census confirmed anecdotal evidence of a regional population shift in China, with more developed eastern coastal provinces gaining population, with provinces in central and northeastern China seeing an outflow of people. China’s continued economic and social development has facilitated the population migration and mobility, the trends of which have become increasingly evident, and the size of [the] floating population has further grown National Bureau of Statistics The population in the eastern region of China accounted for 39.93 per cent of the population, up 2.15 percentage points from 2010. The nation’s western region also gained population, rising 0.22 percentage points from a decade earlier. Central provinces accounted for 25.83 per cent of the nation’s people, while the northeast accounted for 6.98 per cent, down 0.79 percentage points and 1.20 percentage points, respectively, from the 2010 census. China’s urban population grew over the last decade, boosted by Beijing urbanisation efforts. The percentage of urban residents rose to 63.89 per cent, up 14.21 percentage points, while the rural population fell to 36.11 per cent. The country’s “floating population”, largely migrant workers , also increased over the decade. Those living in places other than their household registration area rose 375.82 million, up 69.73 per cent from 2010. Of those, 124.84 million moved to other provinces. “China’s continued economic and social development has facilitated the population migration and mobility, the trends of which have become increasingly evident, and the size of [the] floating population has further grown,” the NBS said. Compared with 2010, the main data release in the 2020 census offered more data on regional breakdowns, including details of people from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan who lived in mainland China and a share of different age groups in provinces. The number of Han Chinese increased to 1.286 million in 2020 from 1.226 million in 2010, while the number of ethnic minorities increased to 125 million from 114 million during the same period. In its most recent estimate in November last year, the government said it expected China’s population to peak in 2027. Beijing has said in the past the annual gap between the number of newborns and the number of deaths will shrink significantly to around 1 million people over the next five years. But He Yafu, an independent expert on China’s demographics, predicted last month the population would begin to fall as soon as next year, as the number of births declines to below 10 million and the number of deaths surpasses 10 million. Any drop in the population would be the first since a two-year decline in 1960-61 due to the impact of the Great Chinese Famine. The population fell by around 10 million in 1960 and a further 3.4 million in 1961 before rebounding by 14.4 million in 1962, according to official figures. China conducted its seventh national population census in November and December last year, gathering a range of personal and household information pertaining to age, education, occupation, migration and marital status of people living in the world’s most populous nation. Last year was the first time the population census collected citizen’s personal ID numbers, raising privacy concerns, although officials said the information would be kept confidential. Census takers also used a smartphone app to collect information, with support from Chinese tech giant Tencent. The government tailored the way it conducted the census to account for how the coronavirus pandemic was affecting different regions, with data in high-risk areas collected by phone or online. The previous six population censuses were conducted in 1953, 1964, 1982, 1990, 2000 and 2010. What is China’s census and why is the latest population survey so important? There are already signs that China’s national birth rate and population are on the verge of falling, with some experts warning of grave consequences. Beijing, which has a population of around 21 million, suffered a 24.3 per cent decline in its birth rate in 2020 compared with a year earlier, according to official data. China also saw 10.035 million new registered births in the household registration system last year, down from 11.79 million in 2019, although this figure does not include the entire population. In response to its ageing population, the central government confirmed earlier this year that it will start to raise the retirement age by a few months every year. China’s mandatory retirement age has remained unchanged at 60 for men and 55 for women – or 50 for blue-collar female workers – for the past 40 years.