China’s population is now inexorably shrinking, making ahead the day the planet’s population declines

China’s National Bureau of Statistics has confirmed what researchers like myself have long suspected — that 2022 was the year China’s population declined, the first time it has happened since the Great Famine brought on by Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1959-1961.

Unlike a famine, whose effects were temporary, and followed by steady population growth, this downturn would be long-lasting, even if it was followed by a temporary revival in births, bringing the day to its peak and start to shrink.

The National Bureau of Statistics reported Tuesday that China’s population fell to 1.412 billion in 2022 from 1.413 billion in 2021, a decrease of 850,000.

The bureau reported 9.56 million births in 2022, down from 10.62 million in 2021. The number of births per thousand people fell from 7.52 to 6.77.

China’s total fertility rate, which is the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime, was fairly stable at an average of about 1.66 between 1991 and 2017 under the influence of China’s one-child policy, but then dropped to 1.28 in 2020 and 1.15 in. 2021.

The 2021 rate of 1.15 is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 that is generally thought to be necessary to maintain the population, and it is also well below the US and Australian rates of 1.7 and 1.6, and even less than Japan’s extraordinarily low aging rate of 1.3.

Calculations by Professor Wei Chen of Renmin University of China, based on data released by the National Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday, put the fertility rate in 2022 at just 1.08.

Births are declining even before COVID

Part of the reason for the slide is that three years of strict coronavirus restrictions have reduced the rate of marriage and the willingness of young families to have children.

But the slippage is mainly because, even before the restrictions, Chinese women were reluctant to have children and resisted incentives to make them give more after the end of the one-child policy in 2016.

Read more: China’s population is about to shrink for the first time since the Great Famine struck 60 years ago. This is what that means to the world

One theory is that the one-child policy made them accustomed to small families. Other theories relate to the high cost of living and the increase in the age of marriage, which delays childbearing and discourages the desire to have children.

In addition, the one-child policy left China with fewer women of childbearing age than expected. Sex selection by couples, limited to having only one child, has brought the ratio of boys to girls to one of the highest in the world.

Growing deaths, even before COVID

The death toll, which was roughly equal to the number of births in 2021 at 10.14 million, rose to 10.41 million in 2022 under the continued impact of an aging population and COVID restrictions.

Importantly, the official death estimate for 2022 was based on data collected in November. This means it does not take into account the spike in deaths in December when COVID restrictions were eased.

China may see a rebound in births in the next few years as a result of easing COVID restrictions, easing the epidemic and strengthening incentives to have more children.

But any such recovery is likely to be only temporary.

When the total fertility rate is as low as it has been in China for a long time, without significant internal migration, a decline in population becomes inevitable.

Population prospects are bleak

Last year, the United Nations gave its estimate of when China’s population will peak by eight years from 2031 to 2023.

My calculations are that if China quickly raises its total fertility rate to its replacement rate of 2.1 and keeps it there, it will take 40 years or more before China’s population starts growing steadily again.

Returning fertility to 2.1 is unlikely. Evidence from European countries, which were the first to experience fertility decline and aging, suggests that once fertility falls below replacement level, it becomes very difficult to bring it back to 2.1.

Read more: Repeal of the one-child policy won’t do much to change China’s population

If China is instead able to raise fertility to 1.3 by 2033, and then gradually to 1.49 by the end of this century as the United Nations assumed last year, China’s population will continue to decline indefinitely. This UN central projection saw China’s population nearly halve to 766.67 million by the end of the century.

China’s total fertility rate is likely to fall even lower. The number of experts of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences decreased to 1.1, which caused the population of China to drop to 587 million in the year 2100.

The most severe scenario, put forward by the United Nations as a low case, is a drop in total fertility to around 0.8, giving China only 488 million people by the end of the century, about a third of its current level.

Such a decrease is possible. The total fertility rate in South Korea decreased to 0.81 in 2021.

China’s population leads the world’s population

China was the largest country in the world, with a population of more than one-sixth of the world’s population. This means that even as it shrinks, how quickly it shrinks has implications for when the world’s population begins to shrink.

In 2022, the United Nations gave its estimate of when the world’s population will peak by 20 years to 2086. The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ predictions for China would mean an early peak in 2084.

India is likely to overtake China as the largest country in the world in 2022. The United Nations predicts a population of 1.7 billion versus China’s 1.4 billion in 2050.

Predicting when and if the world’s population will contract is very difficult, but what happened in China likely brought that day closer.

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