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China demographic crisis looms as population growth slips to slowest ever

China demographic crisis looms as population growth slips to slowest ever

China’s population grew at its slowest since the 1950s as births declined, sowing doubt over Beijing’s ability to power its economy as it succumbs to the same ageing trends afflicting developed nations like Japan. With growth having ebbed ever since a one-child policy was introduced in the late 1970s, the 2020 results of the country’s once-a-decade census on Tuesday showed the population of mainland China increased 5.38% to 1.41 billion. That was the least since modern census-taking began in 1953.

Data showed a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman for 2020 alone, on par with ageing societies like Japan and Italy. The shrill alarm for China’s policymakers is that the world’s second-biggest economy may already be in irreversible population decline without having first accumulated the household wealth of G7 nations.

The number meant China narrowly missed a target it set in 2016 to boost its population to about 1.42 billion by 2020, with a fertility rate of around 1.8. In 2016, China replaced its one-child policy – initially imposed to halt a population explosion at the time – with a two-child limit. The sharp deterioration in demographics will fuel pressure on Beijing to ramp up incentives to couples to have more children – incentives that have thus far failed to offset the impact of career choices and cost-of-living challenges that couples say have deterred them from starting extended families.

Analysts said that with substantial ageing of the population already in view, the census numbers will also give ammunition to policymakers arguing in favour of raising the country’s retirement age sooner than later. One bright spot in the data was an unexpected increase in the proportion of young people – 17.95% of the population was 14 or younger in 2020, compared with 16.6% in 2010.

Urban couples, particularly those born after 1990, tend to value their independence and careers more than raising a family despite parental pressure to have children. Surging living costs in big cities, where most Chinese now live, have also deterred couples from having children. According to a 2005 report by a state think-tank, it cost 490,000 yuan ($74,838) for an ordinary family in China to raise a kid. By 2020, local media reported that the cost had risen to as high as 1.99 million yuan – four times the 2005 number.

China demographic crisis looms as population growth slips to slowest ever, Reuters, May 11

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