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Chinese mothers had just 10.62 million babies last year, as the national birth rate fell to a record-low 7.52 per 1,000 people. Photo: Getty Images

As China’s population nears ‘normalised phase of decline’, experts assess pace and severity

  • Demographers offer varying takes on China’s population outlook, with some saying it could shrink by 1 million a year from 2025, while others foresee a more drawn-out decline
  • Excess of 10 million deaths a year could become the norm for China as its ageing crisis worsens

China’s population level could fluctuate around the point of growth stagnation in the coming years before it starts to decline, analysts say in light of new data showing the mainland’s overall population increased by just 480,000 people in 2021.

The official numbers, released on Monday, are fuelling concerns about China’s demographic crisis, including worries that its population size may have peaked last year or will do so in the near future.

“In the next 10 to 20 years, China’s natural population growth will not continue falling, it will fluctuate around zero and could see small drops, but there will not be rapid decreases,” said Chen Wei, a professor with the Population Development Studies Centre at Renmin University.

The latest annual figures from the National Bureau of Statistics show that Chinese mothers gave birth to 10.62 million babies last year – down 11.5 per cent from 12 million in 2020. The national birth rate also fell to 7.52 births for every 1,000 people, down from 8.52 in 2020 and the lowest rate since data became available.

Yuan Xin, vice-president of the China Population Association and a professor of demography at Nankai University in Tianjin, said he expects China’s population to grow in 2022 before approaching zero growth and eventually entering a stage of normalised decline.

“The natural population increase was 2.04 million people in 2020 and 0.48 million in 2021,” Yuan said. “Looking at the total national population of 1.4 billion people, we can basically say that the number of births is offset by the number of deaths.

“Based on experiences from countries and regions that have entered into a population decline, zero population growth does not happen at a fixed point in time, such as a given year. Rather, it occurs over a period of time that lasts for years, during which natural population growth fluctuates around zero.”

Yuan also voiced support for the nation’s three-child policy that was rolled out last year, “despite the low sentiments” surrounding its announcement. “It will be effective to the extent that it will have a positive impact on population growth,” he added.

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Meanwhile, experts are also warning that China’s ageing population crisis will continue to deepen, as the number of people aged 60 and older accounted for 18.9 per cent of the population last year, up from 18.7 in 2020.

And the number of people aged 65 and older accounted for 14.2 per cent of the population, up 13.5 per cent last year and the first time it has ever topped 14 per cent, which some experts view as a key threshold in defining the level of population ageing.

The number of people older than 60 grew at a relatively slower rate in 2021, and Yuan attributed this to fewer births in 1961 during China’s great famine. He said China should expect the ageing rate to increase rapidly moving forward, as the boom in births from 1962-75 will bring the annual growth of people older than 60 to more than 10 million.

In terms of mortality, 10.14 million mainlanders died in 2021 – the second time since 1949 that the number topped 10 million, with the other year being 1960. An estimated 30 million people starved to death from 1959-61.

After 2025, [China’s] total population will drop by more than 1 million every year
He Yafu, independent demographer

Yuan said that an excess of 10 million deaths a year could become the norm for China as its ageing crisis worsens.

Compared with Yuan and Chen’s relatively conservative predictions on China’s population, others believe China’s population peaked last year.

Independent demographer He Yafu expects it will shrink by hundreds of thousands of people in 2022, with a continued drop-off after that.

“From 2022 to 2024, new births will remain close to 10 million while the number of deaths will be around 10.3 million to 11 million,” He said. “After 2025, the total population will drop by more than 1 million every year, and enter a normalised phase of decline.”