Lesson for India in China’s population decline story

The population drop-off in China came much faster than previously expected, and could act as a brake on economic growth by slowing demand for goods such as new houses

In a significant development, India may have already surpassed China as the world’s most populous country. According to projections from the World Population Review (WPR), India’s population was 141.7 crore as of the end of 2022.

 That’s a little about 50 lakh more than the 141.2 crore declared by China on January 17, when there was the first fall since the 1960s.  India, where 50 per cent of the population is under 30 according to WPR, population increased to 142.3 crore people as of January 18. WPR predicts that, though India’s population growth has slowed, it will still climb until at least 2050.

According to information made public by the National Statistics Bureau, China’s population decreased by 8.5 lakh in 2022 compared to the previous year. China’s population started shrinking in 2022 for the first time in six decades, a milestone for the world’s second-largest economy, which is facing an increasingly serious demographic crisis.

China had 1.41 billion people at the end of last year, 850,000 fewer than the end of 2021, according to data released by the National Statistics Bureau on Tuesday. That marks the first drop since 1961, the final year of the Great Famine under former leader Mao Zedong. Some 9.56 million babies were born in 2022, down from 10.62 million a year earlier, the lowest level since at least 1950, despite efforts by the government to encourage families to have more children.

The population drop-off came much faster than previously expected, and could act as a brake on economic growth by slowing demand for goods such as new houses. Due to the decline, the Chinese economy may struggle to overtake the US in size and the nation could lose its status as the world’s most populous country to India this year.

As recently as 2019, the United Nations was forecasting that China’s population would peak in 2031 and then decline, but last year the UN had revised that estimate to see a peak at the start of 2022. The labour force is already shrinking, long-term demand for houses will likely fall further, and the government may also struggle to pay for its underfunded national pension system. The country is following in the footsteps of other nations in East Asia such as Japan or South Korea, which have seen their birth rates plummet and populations age and start to shrink as they’ve become wealthier and developed.

China’s birth rate, or the number of new born per 1,000 people, declined to 6.77 last year, the lowest level since at least1978. The data released by the National Statistics Bureau show 62% of the population were of working-age, which China defines as people aged 16 to 59, down from around 70% a decade ago, highlighting the challenges the country faces as its population ages.

Interestingly, the world’s population may have shot up beyond eight billion for the first time recently, but some countries including the most populous, China, are seeing their populations shrink. And the decline is set to continue as factors including rising living costs, more women entering the workforce and having children later mean people in some countries are having fewer babies. China’s population shrank last year for the first time in more than six decades and it is expected to be overtaken by India this year as the most populous nation. Other countries, mostly in Europe and Asia, can expect a demographic slump over the coming decades, according to UN figures published last July which forecast how the world’s population will develop between now and 2100.

A different picture is emerging in Africa, where the population is expected to rise from 1.4 to 3.9 billion inhabitants by 2100, with some 38 percent of Earth dwellers living there, against around 18 percent today. Eight nations of more than 10 million inhabitants, most of them in Europe, saw their populations shrink over the past decade. Among them is war-battered Ukraine, but also Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Romania whose birth rates are particularly low — between 1.2 and 1.6 children per woman — according to the World Bank.

Outside Europe, Japan is also seeing a decline due to its ageing population, with women there having on average 1.3 children, along with a low level of immigration. Japan thus lost more than three million inhabitants between 2011 and 2021. Finally, in Syria, the population has been hard-hit by the war which has been raging since 2011. These eight countries, with the exception of Syria, are expected to continue to see their population drop, according to the UN. In particular, China is expected to lose nearly half of its population by 2100, falling from more than 1.4 billion to 771 million inhabitants. The population of Russia will start to shrink by 2030, along with Germany, South Korea, and Spain. Thailand, France, North Korea and Sri Lanka are forecast to follow suit by 2050.

 For many other countries, including India, Indonesia, Turkey and the United Kingdom, the fall is forecast to come in the second half of this century. The population of the entire planet, meanwhile, is only expected to decline in the 2090s, after peaking at 10.4 billion, according to the UN. By 2100, European, American and Asian populations will be on their way to decline, but Africa’s population is expected to continue to increase.

The decline in population shown by China 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.

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.

China’s economy is already feeling the impact of demographic change. The 16-59 working age population in 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.