China’s population fell for the second year in a row in 2023. But why?

Context- In 2023, China recorded 11.1 million deaths and 9 million births, leading to a decrease in the country’s total population for the second consecutive year. During the same period, India surpassed China to become the world’s most populous nation. On Wednesday, January 17, the Chinese government announced that the country’s total population was 1.4 billion.

The fall is part of recent population trends.

  • From 2016 onwards, there has been a decline in China’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR), which represents the average number of children a woman is projected to have in her lifetime.
  • Another key term is the replacement rate, which is the number of offspring a woman needs to have to sustain the current population level into the future.
  • Essentially, a couple having two children would keep the population stable over time. As per the 2020 Census, China’s TFR was 1.3 births per woman. This is a slight increase from the 1.2 reported in the 2010 and 2000 censuses, but it is still significantly lower than the replacement rate of 2.1.

Is the One-child policy to be blamed for China’s falling population?

  • The One-child policy was introduced in China in 1980 to limit couples to one child and accelerate economic growth. This policy was enforced by the Communist Party of China, which has been in power since 1949.
  • Despite initial focus on the Great Leap Forward, a program aimed at improving quality of life and increasing production, the policy led to mass starvation and a rebound in population growth once it was rolled back.
  • In the 1970s, the Chinese government’s Five-year Plans emphasized reducing the birth rate. The campaign was summarized by the slogan “later, longer, and fewer”, promoting late marriages, longer intervals between births, and fewer children. This led to a decline in China’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) throughout the decade.
  • However, the necessity of the stringent One-child policy was later questioned due to concerns over privacy and state overreach.
  • Researchers criticized China’s record, noting that neighboring East Asian countries achieved rapid fertility rate declines through economic growth and voluntary birth planning campaigns, avoiding the abuses caused by China’s One-child policy.
  • Recently, countries like Japan and South Korea have expressed concerns over falling fertility rates.

So what other factors are responsible?

  • In 2016, China officially terminated the One-child policy, permitting couples to have up to two children. This limit was further raised to three children in 2021.
  • Despite these changes, the desired population growth has not been achieved. Similar to its neighboring countries, China’s demographic shifts are partly due to an increasingly educated populace.
  • The education and employment of women empower them to make informed decisions about their reproductive health. The intense pressures of contemporary society, including heightened job competition, also play a role.
  • According to an AP report, individuals are opting for later marriages and sometimes deciding against having children. Those who do choose to have children often stop at one, largely due to the high costs associated with raising and educating a child in urban areas amidst a fiercely competitive academic landscape.
  • A recent report by the Financial Times described the situation as a ‘vicious cycle’. An economic downturn typically leads young couples to postpone having children. This delay, in turn, results in declining fertility rates, which further depress the economy’s productivity rates.

How could a falling population impact China?

  • While the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on population deaths is expected to decrease in 2024, the overall trend of population decline is likely to persist. The working-age population (15-59 years) in China has decreased to 61% of the total population, while the proportion of those aged 60 and older has increased.
  • This shift is attributed to advancements in healthcare systems that have led to increased life expectancy for both men and women.
  • In the short term, this demographic shift will necessitate increased investments in elderly care, including palliative care, and the recruitment of more medical professionals and nursing staff. In the long term, it could place more pressure on the younger population to support the ‘dependants’ (those under 15 and over 59).
  • This comes at a time when China’s economic growth is lower than expected and has not yet returned to its peak levels of the 2000s.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the need to strengthen young people’s perspectives on marriage, parenthood, and family, and to promote policies that support parenthood and actively address population aging.
  • He stressed the importance of promoting traditional Chinese virtues and establishing good family customs to create a new culture of family civilization.

Conclusion- China’s demographic shifts, marked by a declining birth rate and an aging population, present significant challenges for the country. Despite policy changes to increase the birth rate, societal and economic pressures have led to a continued decrease in the population. The burden of supporting an aging population may fall on the younger generation, potentially straining resources.

The lessons from China’s experience offer valuable insights for other countries facing similar demographic changes.


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