The world’s most populous country has reached a turning point: China’s population is beginning to shrink, following a steady, year-long fall in the birth rate that experts say will be irreversible.
The government said on Tuesday that 9.56 million people were born in China in 2022 and 10.41 million people died. It was the first time deaths outnumbered births in China since the early 1960s, when Mao Zedong’s failed economic experiment, the Great Leap Forward, led to widespread famine and death.
The number of births fell from 10.6 million in 2021, the sixth year in a row that the number had fallen. That decline, coupled with a long-term increase in life expectancy, is propelling China into a demographic crisis that will have repercussions not only for China and its economy, but for the world in this century, experts say.
“In the long run, we will see a China the world has never seen,” said Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California Irvine who specializes in demography in China.
“It will no longer be the young, vibrant, growing population. We will come to appreciate China, in terms of its population, as an old and shrinking population.”
The news comes at a challenging time for the Beijing government, which is dealing with the fallout from last month’s sudden reversal of its zero-tolerance policy on Covid.
Over the past four decades, China has emerged as an economic powerhouse and the factory floor of the world. That transformation led to an increase in life expectancy that contributed to the current situation: more people are getting older while fewer babies are being born. By 2035, 400 million people in China are expected to be over the age of 60, representing nearly a third of the population.
That trend is accelerating another worrying event: the day when China will not have enough working-age people to fuel the rapid growth that has made it an engine of the global economy. The labor shortage is also reducing tax revenues and contributions to an already under enormous strain on a pension system.
According to a recent United Nations estimate, the result could have implications for world order, according to some experts, with India’s population poised to outgrow China’s later this year.
This moment was not unexpected. Chinese officials admitted last year that the country was on the verge of a population decline likely to begin before 2025. But it came sooner than demographers, statisticians and the ruling Chinese Communist Party expected.
Officials have taken steps to slow the fall in births. In 2016, they relaxed the one-child policy that had been in effect 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 benefits, tax cuts and even property concessions.
Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, recently made the issue a priority, promising “a national policy system to increase birth rates.” But in reality, experts said, China’s declining birth rates show an irreversible trend.
Along with Japan and South Korea, China has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, below what demographers call the fertility replacement rate needed to grow a population. For that figure, each couple should have an average of two children.
So far, government measures have not changed the underlying fact that many young Chinese simply do not want children. They often cite the increasing cost of raising them, especially with the economy in a precarious state.
Rachel Zhang, a 33-year-old photographer in Beijing, decided before marrying her husband that they would not have children. Sometimes the elderly in the family whine about having a baby.
“I am firm in this,” said Ms. Zhang. “I never had the desire to have children.” The rising costs of raising a child and finding an apartment in a good school district have hardened her resolve.
Other factors have contributed to such reluctance to have more children, including the burden many younger adults face in caring for elderly parents and grandparents.
China’s strict “zero Covid” policy — nearly three years of mass testing, quarantines and lockdowns, which left some families separated for long periods of time — may have led even more people to decide not to have children.
Luna Zhu, 28, and her husband have parents who want to take care of their grandchildren. And she works for a state-owned company that offers a good maternity leave package. But Mrs. Zhu, who got married five years ago, is not interested.
“Especially in the past three years of the epidemic, I feel that many things are so difficult,” said Ms. Zhu.
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