China unexpectedly records first drop in population in decades

BEIJING (AP) — For the first time in decades, China has fewer people than it did at the beginning of last year, according to official figures released Tuesday.

The world’s most populous country has worried for years about the impact of an aging population on its economy and society, but its population was not expected to decline for nearly a decade.

The National Bureau of Statistics reported that the country had 850,000 fewer people by the end of 2022 than the previous year. The figure only includes the population of mainland China, excluding Hong Kong and Macao and foreign residents.

More than one million fewer babies were born than the previous year amid a slowing economy and widespread pandemic lockdowns, according to official figures. The agency reported 9.56 million births in 2022, compared to 10.62 million in 2021. Deaths rose from 10.14 million to 10.41 million.

It was not immediately clear whether population figures were affected by the Covid-19 outbreak, which was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan before spreading around the world. China has been accused by some specialists of underreporting deaths from the virus by blaming underlying conditions, but no estimate of the actual number has been published.

China’s population has begun to decline 9-10 years earlier than Chinese officials predicted and the United Nations estimated, said Yi Fuxian, a demographer and expert on Chinese population trends at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“China has become old before it has become rich,” Yi said.

China has been trying to bolster its population since officially ending its one-child policy in 2016. Since abandoning the policy, China has tried to encourage families to have second or even third children, with little success, reflecting attitudes across much of East Asia where one was born. rates have fallen sharply. In China, the expense of raising children in cities is often cited as a reason.

Men outnumbered women by 722.06 million to 689.69 million, the agency reported, a result of the one-child policy and a traditional preference for male offspring to carry on the family name.

China has long been the world’s most populous nation, but is expected to soon be overtaken by India, if it has not already done so. Estimates put India’s population at more than 1.4 billion and continuing to grow.

The last time China is believed to have experienced a population decline was during the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous drive for collective farming and industrialization launched by then-leader Mao Zedong in the late 1950s, which produced a massive famine that killed tens of millions of human beings.

Yi said that based on his own research, China’s population has actually declined since 2018, showing that the population crisis is “much more serious” than previously thought. China now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, comparable only to Taiwan and South Korea, he said.

That means China’s “real demographic crisis is beyond imagination and all of China’s past economic, social, defense and foreign policies were based on wrong demographic data,” Yi told the Associated Press.

China’s looming economic crisis will be worse than Japan’s, where years of low growth have been partly blamed on a shrinking population, Yi said.

China’s Bureau of Statistics said the working-age population between 16 and 59 years old numbered 875.56 million, accounting for 62.0% of the national population, while those aged 65 and older numbered 209.78 million, accounting for 14.9% of the total.

If handled properly, a declining population does not necessarily predict a weaker economy, said Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social sciences at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

“It’s a big psychological problem. Probably the biggest, says Gietel-Basten.

The statistics also showed increasing urbanization in a country that had traditionally been largely rural. During 2022, the permanent urban population increased by 6.46 million to reach 920.71 million, or 65.22%, while the rural population fell by 7.31 million.

The UN estimated last year that the world’s population reached 8 billion on November 15 and that India will replace China as the world’s most populous nation in 2023. India’s last census was scheduled for 2022, but was postponed amid the pandemic.

In a report released on World Population Day, the United Nations also said global population growth fell below 1% in 2020 for the first time since 1950.

Also on Tuesday, the statistics bureau released data showing China’s economic growth fell to its second-lowest level in at least four decades last year under pressure from anti-virus controls and a slump in real estate.

The world’s No. 2 economy grew by 3% in 2022, less than half of the previous year’s 8.1%, the data showed.

It was the second-lowest annual rate since at least the 1970s, after falling to 2.4% in 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, although activity is reviving after the lifting of restrictions that kept millions at home and sparked protests.

Gietel-Basten said China has been adapting to demographic changes for years by devising policies to move its economic activities up the value chain for innovation, pointing to developments in semiconductor manufacturing and the financial industry.

“The population of India is much younger and growing. But there are many reasons why you wouldn’t necessarily automatically bet your entire fortune on India surpassing China economically in the near future, he said.

Among India’s many challenges is a level of female participation in the workforce that is much lower than China’s, Gietel-Basten said.

“Whatever population you have, it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it … to some degree,” he said.

Associated Press writers Huizhong Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Kanis Leung in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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