Explainer | Is China’s population a cause for concern?
- China’s overall population continued to grow in 2020, rising to 1.412 billion people, up from 1.4 billion a year earlier
- Chinese mothers gave birth to just 12 million babies in 2020 – the lowest total since 11.87 million in 1961 amid the Great Chinese Famine
What is China’s population?
Beijing began releasing the results of its seventh national population census on in early May 2021, and the results showed the number of new births fell for the fourth consecutive year in 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
China's population by decade (1950-2020)
|Year||Population (in millions)|
Source: National Bureau of Statistics
The once-a-decade census was conducted in late 2020, but the data release ended up being twice postponed in 2021 – first from early April to late April, and then to an indefinite date in the future.
How is China’s population measured?
China intends to conduct a sample survey of 1 per cent of the population – also known as a “micro population census” – between the 2020 census and the 2030 census to monitor population changes, according to official regulations.
In non-census years, population figures are updated based on annual births and deaths data.
Why was the release of China’s census data postponed twice?
Furthermore, China’s statistics agency has a monopoly on demographic data, as it is impossible for any third party to conduct a separate census. The NBS data remains a state secret until its official release.
The previous six population censuses were conducted in 1953, 1964, 1982, 1990, 2000 and 2010.
What are the problems facing China’s population?
The number of Chinese people aged 60 or older reached 264.02 million in 2020, or 18.7 per cent of the population. That was 5.44 percentage points higher than during the previous census in 2010.
A projection released in November 2020 by the Insurance Association of China said that the nation’s elderly population could reach 300 million by the end of 2025, and that the gap between contributions and outlays could be as high as 10 trillion yuan (US$1.6 trillion) in a decade.
The reserve of the urban worker pension fund – the backbone of the country’s state pension system – is predicted to peak at 7 trillion yuan (US$1.09 trillion) in 2027, then drop steadily to zero by 2035, according to a report last year by the World Social Security Centre at the government-supported Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
And the gap between contributions and outlays could reach 11 trillion yuan (US$1.64 trillion) by 2050, with each retired citizen supported by only one worker, down from the current level of two, the government think tank calculated.
And as the number of workers able to pay their taxes to add to the pension fund declined, the number of elderly people aged 65 and over rose to 191 million in 2020 from 119 million in 2010. This means the group that will need to rely on that fund accounted for 13.5 per cent of the population in 2020, up from 8.9 per cent a decade earlier.
What is China’s fertility rate?
Chinese mothers gave birth to just 12 million babies in 2020 – down from 14.65 million babies in 2019, and the lowest total since 11.87 million in 1961 amid the Great Chinese Famine.
The weak birth data came after years of calls by veteran demographers for the Chinese government to abandon its restrictive birth policy because of the damage it would do to future economic growth and the nation’s ability to support its ageing population, as fewer births mean fewer wage earners and consumers in the future.
“Without strong policy intervention, China’s new births are likely to fall below 10 million in the next few years, with a fertility rate lower than Japan’s and perhaps the lowest in the world,” warned Liang Jianzhang, a Chinese demographer.
A total of 10.035 million newborns were recorded in the household registration system, known as hukou in China. That was a drop from 11.79 million in 2019, according to figures released by the Ministry of Public Security in February.
What else did China’s census tell us?
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 data showed that the number of Chinese children aged 14 years or younger rose to 253.38 million in the 2020 census, accounting for 17.95 per cent of the population, up 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.
The census also 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.
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’s 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.
Compared with 2010, the main data release in the 2020 census offered more information on regional breakdowns, including details of people from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan who lived in mainland China, and on 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 those belonging to ethnic minority groups increased to 125 million from 114 million during the same period.
What is the outlook for China’s population?
Like other countries in Asia, including Japan and South Korea, China is close to reaching a point where deaths exceed new births, resulting in a fall in the total population, and some experts are warning of grave consequences.
He Yafu, an independent expert on China’s demographics, expects that population decline to occur in 2022 as the number of births fall to nearly 10 million and the number of deaths surpass 10 million.
“I estimated the number of new births in China … will fall to around 11 million this year, and then drop by another 1 million in 2022,” He said.
Over the past five years, the number of Chinese women in the prime childbearing ages between 20 and 34 fell steadily at an annual rate of 3.4 million. This rate of decline will almost double to 6.2 million in the next five years, according to the China Population and Development Research Centre, a think tank under the central government.
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