China may be one step closer to losing its place as the world’s most populous country to India after its population declines for the first time since the 1960s.
The country’s population will drop in 2022 to 1.411 billion, down about 850,000 people from last year, China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced at Tuesday’s annual briefing.
The last time China’s population declined was in 1961, during a famine that killed tens of millions of people across the country.
Meanwhile, a combination of factors is responsible for the fall: the cumulative effect of the one-child policy that China introduced in the 1980s (but abandoned); changing attitudes towards marriage and family among young Chinese; has widened the gender gap and the difficulties of raising children in China’s most expensive cities.
Experts warn that, if maintained, this could lead to a global crisis, with China playing a major role in driving global growth as the world’s second largest economy.
A shrinking population could exacerbate China’s problems with an aging workforce and growing population, adding to its problems as it struggles to recover from the pandemic.
The decline in population was caused by China’s one-child policy, which for more than 35 years limited families to only one child. Women caught violating the policy were often forced to have abortions, fined, and deported.
Fearing the declining birth rate in recent years, the government repealed the law. In 2015, it allowed couples to have two children, and in 2021 they raised this to three. But policy changes and other government efforts, such as providing economic incentives, have not succeeded – for various reasons.
The rising cost of living and education as well as rising property prices are major factors. Many people – especially in cities – face low wages, limited job opportunities, and grueling work hours that make raising one child, let alone three, difficult and expensive.
These issues are exacerbated by rigid gender roles that often place the majority of housework and childcare on women – who, more educated and financially independent than ever before, do not want to shoulder this disproportionate burden. Women have also reported being discriminated against at work based on their marital or parental status, with employers often unwilling to pay for maternity leave.
Some cities and states have begun implementing measures such as paternity leave and expanding child care services. But many activists and feminists say that’s far enough.
And frustrations have only grown during the pandemic, with a frustrated young generation whose lives and health have been disrupted by China’s zero-covid policies.
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China’s low population is compounding the problems it already faces. The country’s population is already aging and the labor force is shrinking, which is putting young people at a disadvantage.
China’s elderly now make up about one-fifth of the total population, officials said Tuesday. Some experts warn that the country could follow a path similar to that of Japan, which entered three decades of economic crisis in the early 1990s that coincided with its aging population.
“China’s economy is entering a critical phase, no longer able to rely on abundant, expensive labor to drive industrialization and growth,” said HSBC Asia chief economist Frederic Neumann.
“When the unemployment rate starts to decrease, productivity levels should rise for the economy to improve.”
China’s economy is already in trouble, growing by just 3% in 2022 – one of the worst performances in nearly half a century, due to months of Covid lockdowns and a sharp downturn in the housing market.
The labor shortage could make the recovery even more difficult as China resumes travel abroad and loosens many of the restrictions that have been in place for the past few years.
There are also social consequences. China’s social security system is expected to be at risk because there will be fewer workers to contribute to things like pensions and health care – as the demand for these services increases due to the aging population.
There will also be fewer people caring for the elderly, and many young people are already working to support their parents and two sets of grandparents.
Chinese authorities are in danger of being left behind
Given its role in driving the global economy, China’s problems could have global ramifications.
The outbreak has highlighted how China’s domestic problems can affect trade and investment flows, with its lockdowns and border controls disrupting trade flows.
Not only would a slowdown in China’s economy boost global growth, it could threaten China’s ambitions to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy.
“China’s failure to act on this demographic change could result in slower growth in the next two to three decades and make it less competitive globally with the United States,” the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said. he said in his article on the website last August.
China also looks set to lose its place as the most populous country this year to India, whose population and economy are improving.
“India is the biggest winner,” said Yi Fuxian, who studies Chinese demographics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
However, even though Yi said India’s economy will one day surpass that of the US, he still has a way to go. India is the world’s fifth-largest economy, overtaking the United Kingdom last year, and some experts say the country is not creating enough job opportunities to meet its growing workforce.
However, some analysts say there may be silver news from China.
“For climate change and the environment, fewer people are a boon, not a curse,” tweeted Mary Gallagher, director of the International Institute at the University of Michigan.
Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA, said that population decline should not be seen as “a very bad thing,” but rather “increasing global warming and biodiversity loss.”
Chinese officials have made efforts to encourage large families, including a multi-agency policy released last year to promote maternity leave and provide tax breaks and other benefits to families.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping promised in October to “advance human development processes” and reduce the financial burden on families.
“[We will] implement a plan to raise the birth rate, and reduce the cost of pregnancy and childbirth, child rearing, and education,” Xi said. “We will pursue a national strategy to combat population aging, establish programs to care for the elderly, and provide better care for the elderly who live alone. .”
Some places are even offering incentives to encourage more births. A village in the southern province of Guangdong announced in 2021 that it would pay residents with children under two-and-a-half years old up to $510 a month – which could add up to $15,000 per child. Some places offer housing assistance for couples with multiple children.
But these efforts have not seen results, many experts and residents say that a major renovation is needed. After Tuesday’s news broke, a hashtag went viral on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform: “To promote fertility, you must first address the concerns of young people.”
Our wages are very low, while the rent is very high and the financial problems are serious. My future husband will work overtime until 3 o’clock every day until the end of the year,” the Weibo user wrote. “Survival and my health are already difficult, let alone having children.”