China’s slow population growth is falling closer to zero as fewer couples have children, government data showed Tuesday, adding to strains on an aging country with a shrinking workforce.
The population rose by 72 million people over the past 10 years to 1.411 billion in 2020, the National Bureau of Statistics announced after a once-a-decade census.
It said annual growth averaged 0.53 percent, down by 0.04 percent from the previous decade.
Chinese leaders have eased the controversial birth limits enforced since 1980 to restrain population growth but worry the number of working-age people is falling too fast.
“Labor resources are still abundant,” the statistics agency director, Ning Jizhe, said at a news conference.
The percentage of children in the population has increased since 2010, while the share 60 and older rose faster.
The pool of potential workers aged 15 to 59 shrank to 894 million, down about 5 percent from a 2011 peak of 925 million.
Changes to birth limits and other policies “promoted a rebound in the birth population,” Ning said. However, he said there were 12 million babies born last year, which would be down 18 percent from 2019’s report of 14.6 million.
Some forecasters warn China faces a “demographic time bomb.”
“We are more concerned about the fast decline in the working-age population,” said Lu Jiehua, a professor of population studies at Peking University.
The percentage of potential workers will fall from three-quarters of the total population in 2011 to just above half by 2050, according to Lu.
“If the population gets too old, it will be impossible to solve the problem through immigration,” Lu said. “It needs to be dealt with at an early stage.”
Chinese regulators talk about raising the official retirement age of 55 to increase the pool of workers.
The International Monetary Fund is forecasting Chinese economic growth of 8.4 percent this year. The ruling Communist Party wants to double output per person from 2020 levels by 2035, which would require annual growth of about 4.7 percent.
The numbers reported Thursday reflect a gain of 11.8 million people, or 0.8 percent, over the official estimate for 2019, when the government said the population edged above 1.4 billion for the first time.
The working-age population fell to 63.3 percent of the total from 70.1 percent a decade ago.
The population up to age 14 expanded by 1.3 percentage points to 17.9 percent.
Those 60 and older — a group of 264 million people who on their own would be the world’s fourth-biggest country — rose 5.4 percentage points to 18.7 percent of the population.
The party took its biggest step in 2015 when rules that limited many couples to having only one child were eased to allow two.
However, China’s birth rate, paralleling trends in South Korea, Thailand and other Asian countries, already was falling before the one-child rule. The average number of children per mother tumbled from above six in the 1960s to below three by 1980, according to the World Bank.
The one-child limit, enforced with threats of fines or loss of jobs, led to abuses including forced abortions.
A preference for sons led parents to kill baby girls, prompting warnings that millions of men might be unable to find a wife. Thursday’s data showed China has about 33 million more males than females.
After limits were eased in 2015, many couples with one child had a second, but total births fell because fewer had any at all.
Some researchers say China’s population already is shrinking.
Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the population started to fall in 2018. His 2007 book “Big Country with an Empty Nest” argued against the one-child limits.
“China’s economic, social, educational, tech, defense and foreign policies are built on the foundation of wrong numbers,” Yi said.
The latest data put China closer to be overtaken by India as the most populous country, which is expected to happen by 2025.
India’s population last year was estimated by the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs at 1.38 billion, or 1.5 percent behind China. The agency says India should grow by 0.9 percent annually through 2025.
The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.
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