China adds 34m people to population, but greying trend continues, census shows

Growth slowed in past five years, with society now made up of older people and lower proportion of workers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2016, 11:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2016, 11:56pm

China’s population growth is slowing, with the number of people rising by nearly 34 million in the past five years, the census has found, with the shift towards a greying, urban society continuing to worry experts.

The population sits at 1,373,490,000 people, after rising by 0.5 per cent annually since 2010, down from the 0.57 per cent increase recorded in the decade since 2000, the National Bureau of Statistics announced on Wednesday.

The rise – the slowest in China’s recent history – comes despite the relaxation of family-planning policies in January that allowed all couples to have a second child.

It’s time to lift administrative restrictions on fertility
Zuo Xuejin, demographics researcher

“China has to worry about the risk of too-low fertility, instead of too-high fertility,” said Zuo Xuejin, a demographics researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “It’s time to lift administrative restrictions on fertility, allowing child-bearing-age couples to decide by themselves the number of children they want to have.”

The government should do more to encourage couples to have babies, such as providing subsidies to employers who gave maternity leave, Zuo said.

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The data for the mid-decade census was drawn from a sample survey covering 21.31 million Chinese across the country, or 1.55 per cent of the population.

The proportion of the population that makes up the labour force – those aged 15-59 – has also fallen, while the number of migrants, or those who left their place of household registration, dropped for the first time in 2015.

“To some extent, China’s urbanisation is approaching its peak, and it’s wrong to put hopes on urbanisation as an[economic] growth engine,” said Li Xunlei, the chief economist with Haitong Securities in Shanghai.

Li said the government’s urbanisation policies, such as encouraging people to live in small cities and towns, ran against “market choices”. Most people preferred big cities, he said.

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“In addition, granting permanent residency to migrant workers in cities means the government has to spend more on public services, utilities, health care and education. As a result, China’s debt ratio may rise, but investment returns will drop.”

The ageing population is already beginning to create strain on the mainland’s fragmented pension system. In 2015, at least nine provinces were unable to meet their pension payment obligations without support from Beijing. The decline in the number of workers is also pushing up labour costs for manufacturers, eroding a key advantage the mainland has against global competitors.

“All rural residents able to move into towns are now working in towns, leaving a very bleak picture in the Chinese countryside,” said Yi Fuxian, author of Big Country with An Empty Nest.