China’s population growth in the decade to 2020 fell to its lowest levels in official records from the 1950s, adding to pressure on Beijing to increase incentives for couples to have more children and to avert irreversible decline.
As growth has slowed since a one-child policy was introduced in the late 1970s, the results of the country’s 2020 census released Tuesday showed that mainland China’s population rose 5.38% to 1.41 billion is.
That compares with a 5.84% increase to 1.34 billion in the 2010 census and a double-digit percentage increase in all six previous official Chinese population surveys of 1953.
The number meant China narrowly missed a target it set itself in 2016 of increasing its population to around 1.42 billion people by 2020. In 2016, China replaced its one-child policy, originally imposed to stop a population explosion at the time, with a two-child target limit.
In recent months, the outlook for China’s state media has been increasingly bleak, as the population could potentially shrink over the next few years. The United Nations predicts that the number of people living in mainland China will peak by 2030 before it goes down.
In late April, the Financial Times said that the population had actually decreased in 2020 from the previous year, citing unidentified people who were familiar with the matter.
The 2020 figure was actually slightly above the 2019 estimate of 1.4005 billion, estimated in a smaller official poll released last February.
China has long been concerned about its population growth to support its economic rise and fuel prosperity.
One bright spot in the census data was an unexpected increase in the proportion of young people – 17.95% of the population were 14 years of age or younger in 2020, compared with 16.6% in 2010.
FALLING BIRTH RATE
From 2016 to 2019, with the exception of 2016, the annual birthrate declined for the most part. China has not yet announced the birth rate for 2020.
“A sharp drop in the number of births is a sure thing, and all kinds of evidence support this claim,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demographics expert at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank.
“No published census data is required to determine that there is a massive drop in birth rates in China,” Huang said. Even if China’s population has not decreased in 2020, the expert said, “It will be 2021 or 2022 or very soon.”
Urban couples, especially those born after 1990, value their independence and careers more than starting a family despite parental pressures to have children.
The rising cost of living in China’s major cities, which is a great source of babies due to their large populations, has also discouraged couples from having children.
According to a 2005 report by a state think tank, an ordinary family in China cost 490,000 yuan ($ 74,838) to raise a child. By 2020, local media reported that the cost had risen to 1.99 million yuan – four times the 2005 figure.
“Having a child is a devastating blow to the professional development of women my age,” said Annie Zhang, a 26-year-old insurance professional in Shanghai who got married last April.
“Second, the cost of raising a child (in Shanghai) is outrageous,” she said in comments made ahead of the 2020 census release. “You say goodbye to freedom as soon as you are born.”
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