• The last time China’s population saw a decline was in 1961, in the midst of a devastating four-year famine following Mao’s failed “Great Leap Forward” campaign. The latest decline in population, however, is no blip.
  • The shrinking of the world’s most populous country by as much as 8,50,000 in 2022 marks a watershed moment with lasting consequences for China and the world.
  • Beijing announced on January 17 that births in China last year dropped by more than 10% to 9.56 million, with 10.41 million deaths.
  • The 1.411 billion population will certainly be overtaken by India’s this year. China’s population story holds lessons for countries that have tried robust interventions in social engineering.
  • China has spent the greater part of two decades trying — and failing — to get families to boost birth rates that have been declining since the government introduced a harsh “one-child policy” in 1980.
  • The belated introduction in 2016 of a “two-child policy” to course correct was not met with the enthusiasm that planners had expected for a relaxation announced with fanfare. A government survey found that 70% would not have more children citing financial reasons.
  • China’s economy is already feeling the impact of demographic change. The 16-59 working age population (2022), was 875 million, a decline of around 75 million since 2010.
  • Wages are rising, and labour-intensive jobs are moving out, predominantly to Southeast Asia. The above-60 population, meanwhile, had increased by 30 million to 280 million.
  • The number of elderly will peak at 487 million by 2050 (35% of the population). China’s National Working Commission on Ageing estimates spending on health care for the elderly will take up 26% of the GDP by 2050.
  • Signs are China is already on track to follow Japan’s example of a prolonged period of a shrinking workforce with declining growth. As a paper from Japan’s Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry pointed out, the proportion of child and elderly populations in China as of 2020 was similar to Japan’s in 1990.
  • Moreover, China reached this inflection point faster, with its fertility rate falling from 2.74 to 1.28 in the preceding four-decade period, while Japan’s fell from 1.75 to 1.29.
  • The paper pointed out that India’s proportion of child and elderly population in 2020 was similar to China’s in 1980, just when its economic boom took off.
  • That was made possible only by making the most of its demographic dividend by investing heavily in health care and education to fashion a workforce capable of powering what would become the world’s factory.


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