Written by Steven Lee Myers, Jin Wu and Claire Fu
Chinese academics recently delivered a stark warning to the country’s leaders: China is facing its most precipitous decline in population in decades, setting the stage for potential demographic, economic and even political crises in the near future.
For years China’s ruling Communist Party implemented a series of policies intended to slow the growth of the world’s most populous nation, including limiting the number of children couples could have to one. The long-term effects of those policies mean the country will soon enter an era of “negative growth,” or a contraction in the size of the total population.
A report, issued this month by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is the latest recognition that while China’s notorious “one child” policy may have achieved its original aim of slowing population growth, it has also created new challenges for the government.
A decline in the birthrate and an increase in life expectancy means there will soon be too few workers able to support an enormous and aging population, the Academy warned. The academy estimated the contraction would begin in 2027, though others believe it would come sooner or has already begun.
The government has recognized the worrisome demographic trend and in 2013 began easing enforcement of the “one child” policy in certain circumstances. It then raised the limit to two children for all families in 2016, in hopes of encouraging a baby boom. It did not work.
After a brief uptick that year, the birthrate fell again in 2017, with 17.2 million babies born compared with 17.9 in 2016. Although the number of families having a second child rose, the overall number of births continued to drop.
According to preliminary official figures cited by The Global Times, a party-run newspaper, the total number of births for 2018 could fall to as low as 15 million. Some cities and provinces have reported declines in local birthrates of as much as 35 percent.
The fertility rate required to maintain population levels is 2.1 children per woman, a figure known as “replacement level fertility.”
The fertility rates in many advanced economies have fallen as their societies have become wealthier and older. China’s fertility rate has officially fallen to 1.6 children per woman, but even that number is disputed.
Yi Fuxian, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has written that China’s government has obscured the actual fertility rate to disguise the disastrous ramifications of the “one child” policy. According to his calculations, the fertility rate averaged 1.18 between 2010 and 2018.
As in other countries, there are myriad reasons for the declining birthrate, including rising prosperity and new opportunities for women. China’s economic expansion has created a society where many young couples now struggle with economic pressures — including rising education and housing costs — making it difficult to have even one child, let alone two.
But the most profound cause of the drop, Yi and others said, was the “one child” policy. Fewer children were born, and because of cultural preferences for male offspring, fewer of them were girls.
Chinese women born during the years after the “one child” policy are now reaching or have passed their peak fertility age. There are simply not enough of them to sustain the country’s population level, despite new efforts by the government to encourage families to have two children.
The looming demographic crisis could be the Achilles heel of China’s stunning economic transformation over the past 40 years. The declining population could create an even greater burden on China’s economy and its labor force. With fewer workers in the future, the government could struggle to pay for a population that is growing older and living longer.
A decline in the working-age population could also slow consumer spending and thus have an effect on the economy in China and beyond.
Many compare China’s demographic crisis to the one that stalled Japan’s economic boom in the 1990s.
Some experts believe the population has already started shrinking.In a recent paper, Yi and Su Jian, an economist at Peking University, argued that the population contracted in 2018, the first year it has done so since the famines of 1961 and 1962 induced by the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s industrialization campaign. The researchers said inaccurate census estimates had obscured the actual population and fertility rates.
“It can be seen that 2018 is a historic turning point in China’s population,” Yi wrote in an email. “China’s population has begun to decline and is rapidly aging. Its economic vitality will keep waning.”