When will China’s population peak? It depends who you ask

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China’s population grew by 480,000 people last year, to more than 1.41 billion.Credit: Robert Haasmann/ImageBROKER/Alamy

When will the population of China, the largest in the world, peak? This is a point which, according to demographers, is fast approaching. The country’s health department announced this month that the population will peak and then begin to decline over the next three years. Others think it could happen much sooner.

“The turning point is just around the corner,” says Yong Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “I will not be surprised if a population decline is reported at the end of this year.”

After years of declining birth rates, the National Health Commission wrote in an article posted online in early August that China’s population growth has slowed significantly and will begin to decline between 2023 and 2025. According to an estimate released on last month in a Chinese peer-reviewed newspaper, Social Science Journal1Wei Chen, a demographer at Renmin University in Beijing, concluded that, based on national census data released in 2020, China’s population may already have peaked in 2021 (see “Projected Peak”).

Projected peak: Line graph showing China's total population from 1950 to 2020 and projected changes to 2100.

Source: China National Bureau of Statistics and Chen/Social Science Journal

The Chinese government has made significant efforts to increase birth rates over the past decade, including reversing the country’s decades-long policy of population control. Demographers argue that changing attitudes towards parenthood among younger generations are also contributing to slower growth. The trend is expected to persist and aging will become a major challenge for the country, they say.

Last year, China’s total population grew by just 480,000 people, to just over 1.41 billion, with a natural growth rate – the difference between the number of births and deaths – close to zero. The country’s birth rate fell for the fifth consecutive year to 7.5 births per thousand inhabitants, and only 10 million babies were born in 2021, the lowest since 1949.

Change of attitude

In the 1960s, China experienced a major baby boom after the Great Chinese Famine. In an effort to limit rapid population growth, the government introduced a one-child policy in 1980 that restricted most families to having only one child. The strategy caused the country’s population growth rate to drop from 2.5% in 1970 to 0.7% in 2000. But the policy did not end until 2016 (see “The growth rate from China “). Many demographers, including Jianxin Li of Peking University in Beijing, believe the end of the policy came too late to reverse the country’s falling fertility rate. Li predicted as early as 1997 that China’s population could peak in 2024 if the population control policy remained in place.

China's growth rate: line graph showing the birth, death and natural growth rate in China since 1980.

Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China

Researchers say China’s declining birth rate continued even after the end of the one-child policy due to changing attitudes towards marriage and childbearing and young people delaying these events. With more women pursuing higher education and working in paid jobs, they are starting families later in life than previous generations, says Jian Song, a demographer at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

Data shows that in 2020, the average age of men and women when they first married was around 29 and 28, respectively. In 2010, women were 24 and men 26 when they first married. In China, most people choose to have children after marriage, and having children later in life means women tend to have fewer children, Song adds.

Younger generations tend to marry and have children more cautiously, once they are financially prepared, says Yang Shen, a sociologist at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. “Most young people today still want to start a family, but the economic pressure of housing and childcare can seriously deter them from doing so,” Shen says.

Research has found that 45% fewer babies were born in the last two months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2015, suggesting that the COVID-19 outbreak, which hit China in early 2020, has affected couples’ decision whether or not to have children.

Aging society

China’s “falling birth rate tsunami” is exacerbated by fewer women entering childbearing age, Cai says. The number of babies born in the 1990s was much lower than in the 1980s. This generation of women is now of childbearing age, but will have fewer children in total than the previous generation. “Demographically, there is a strong negative dynamic,” Cai says.

At the same time, baby boomers born in the 1960s are reaching their sixties. “In the next 10 to 20 years, China will see an increase in its elderly population, which will become a major challenge for society,” Song said. Currently, more than 18% of the Chinese population is over 60 years old. This proportion is expected to rise to one-third by 2050, to reach 300 million people.

An aging population is an expense for families and a financial problem for government. Cai’s team predicted that public health spending would double between 2015 and 2050 due to the aging population. “We need to start preparing the resources to care for the elderly population now to meet the challenge of aging,” Song said.

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