China’s population has begun to shrink, after a steady, yearslong decline in its birthrate. The government said Tuesday that 9.56 million people were born in China in 2022, while 10.41 million people died. It was the first time deaths had outnumbered births in China since the early 1960s, when the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s failed economic experiment, led to widespread famine and death.
Births were down from 10.6 million in 2021, the sixth consecutive year that the number had fallen. That decline, coupled with a long-running rise in life expectancy, is thrusting China into a demographic crisis that will have consequences in this century, not just for China and its economy but for the world, experts said.
Over the past four decades, China has emerged as an economic powerhouse and the world’s factory floor. That transformation led to an increase in life expectancy that contributed to its current situation — more people getting older while fewer babies are born. By 2035, 400 million people in China are expected to be older than 60, accounting for nearly one-third of its population.
That trend is hastening another worrying event: the day when China will not have enough people of working age to fuel the high-speed growth that made it an engine of the global economy. Labour shortages will also reduce tax revenue and contributions to a pension system that is already under enormous pressure.
Officials have taken steps to try to slow the decline in births. In 2016, they relaxed the one-child policy that had been in place for 35 years, allowing families to have two children. In 2021, they raised the limit to three. Since then, Beijing has offered a range of incentives to couples and small families to encourage them to have children, including cash handouts, tax cuts and even property concessions.
Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, recently made the issue a priority, pledging “a national policy system to boost birthrates.” But in reality, experts said, China’s plunging birth figures reveal an irreversible trend.
China’s strict “zero Covid” policy — nearly three years of mass testing, quarantines and lockdowns, resulting in some families being separated for long periods of time — may have led even more people to decide against having children.