Why China’s population has declined for the first time in decades: NPR

Why China's population has declined for the first time in decades: NPR
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A man drags a child past a New Year decorations on display at Qianmen Pedestrian Street, a popular tourist spot in Beijing on Tuesday.

Andy Wong/AP

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Andy Wong/AP

A man drags a child past a New Year decorations on display at Qianmen Pedestrian Street, a popular tourist spot in Beijing on Tuesday.

Andy Wong/AP

China has seen its first population decline in decades in what some experts have called a “sea change” for a country aiming to expand its economy and boost its birthrate.

Therefore Data released Tuesday by the National Bureau of Statistics of ChinaAt the end of 2022, mainland China’s population was 1,411 billion people, down 850,000 from a year earlier.

Stuart Gietel-Basten, Professor of Social Sciences at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Khalifa University in Dubai, said NPR morning edition that China’s downsizing could complicate plans for further economic expansion.

“The era of fast growth, double-digit growth, cheap labor, a younger workforce — that era is really coming to an end,” said Gietel-Basten.

China, which has long been the world’s most populous country, may soon surpass its population from fast-growing India. 2022, according to UN informationIndia had a population of 1.4066 billion, just behind China’s 1.4485 billion

The last time China experienced a population decline was during a turbulent period known as the “Great Leap Forward” that began in the late 1950s.

China’s notorious one-child policy limited births for decades

China’s fertility rates were declining as early as the 1970s, and in 1980 the Chinese government officially introduced the controversial one-child policy and outlawed families from having more than one baby. The policy should further limit China’s population growth and help fuel an economic boom.

Ultimately, this resulted in low fertility rates and a large aging population. According to government data released this week, there were more deaths than births in China last year. Officials said 10.41 million people died while 9.56 million were born.

In 2015, China ended the one-child policy and allowed married couples to have two children. In 2021, the allowance was again extended to up to three children.

Yun Zhou, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, told NPR that China’s recent attempts to reverse course and encourage families to have more children have not worked.

“From my own research, I saw that women often resisted and often prioritized their paid employment and prioritized their pursuit of individualistic ideals over this sustained incentive,” Zhou said.

“But since China is an authoritarian country, it remains to be seen to what extent and to what extent the state actually tries to encourage births.”

Zhou also noted that although the Chinese government has encouraged married heterosexual couples to have more children, LGBTQ people and unmarried people do are often omitted from official politics.

The COVID pandemic also weighed on China’s fertility rate

After COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China, the resulting lockdowns have caused widespread economic pain and social isolation around the world.

That was especially true in China, the world second largest economywhere in some cases people have been confined to their homes for days or even weeks as strict pandemic lockdowns were put in place to slow the spread of the virus.

Gietel-Basten said China is struggling with the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, as well as “the challenges of working from home and having a family in these challenging circumstances, which have been particularly difficult in China.”

But he added that China’s shrinking population doesn’t necessarily mean the country’s economic growth will slow.

The government has already invested in services for its aging population, Gietel-Basten noted, and will seek to boost the productivity of the many workers it still has.

“There are really still many levers to be pulled in China,” he said.

Zhou said if China’s population continues to shrink and its economy slows, it could make the country and its leaders view China’s place in the world differently. The government could project an “even more nationalistic imagination” or, on the other hand, re-emphasize social stability, she suggested.

“This is really an open question and it really remains to be seen how the Chinese Communist Party will react,” she said. “Although it has been a long time coming, we are on the cusp of a fundamental change.”

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