China’s ‘long term time bomb’: Falling births drive slow population growth

By Sui-Lee Wee

China’s population is growing at its slowest pace since the 1960s, with falling births and a graying workforce presenting the Communist Party with one of its gravest social and economic challenges.

Figures for a census conducted last year and released Tuesday showed the country’s population at 1.41 billion people, about 72 million more than the 1.34 billion who were counted in the last census, in 2010.

Births have fallen in recent years, and with rising longevity have pushed China to the verge of a demographic crisis that could stunt growth in the world’s second-largest economy. China faces aging-related challenges similar to that of developed countries, while having a much smaller household income — that is, the country is growing old without first having grown rich.

Beijing is now under greater pressure to abandon its family planning policies, which are among the world’s most intrusive; overhaul an economic model that has long relied on a huge population and growing pool of workers; and plug yawning gaps in health care and pensions.

“China is facing a unique demographic challenge that is the most urgent and severe in the world,” said Liang Jianzhang, a research professor of applied economics at Peking University and a demography expert. “This is a long-term time bomb.”

The new population figure puts the average annual growth rate at 0.53% over the past decade, down from 0.57% from 2000 to 2010. This leaves it on course to be surpassed by India as the world’s most populous nation in the coming years.

The results of the once-a-decade census also showed that the population is aging rapidly. People over the age of 65 now account for 13.5% of the population, up from 8.9% in 2010.

For decades, China relied on an endless stream of young workers willing to toil for low wages to fuel economic growth. Today, labor costs are rising, in part because of a shortage of workers. Factory owners in the southern city of Guangzhou are lining up in the streets asking employees to pick them. Some companies have turned to robots because they cannot find enough workers.

While most developed countries in the West and Asia are also getting older, China’s demographic problems are largely self-inflicted. The one-child policy, imposed in 1980, may have prevented 400 million births, but also shrank the number of women of childbearing age. As the population gets older, it will impose tremendous pressure on the country’s overwhelmed hospitals and underfunded pension system.

These trends are proving difficult to reverse. Three decades after the one-child policy was introduced to tamp down population growth, attitudes about family sizes have shifted, with many Chinese now preferring to have only one child.

Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, likened China’s birth control policy to a mortgage that the government has taken out on its future.

“The census results will confirm that the payback time is now,” said Wang, an expert on China’s demographic trends, ahead of the release of the results. “Demography will constrain many of China’s ambitious undertakings.”

The census could prompt policymakers to further loosen family planning restrictions, which since 2016 have been eased to limit couples to two children. Already, many local governments are allowing families to have three children or more without making them pay fines.

But demographers say there are no easy fixes. A growing cohort of educated Chinese women are putting off marriage, which has declined since 2014. The divorce rate has risen consistently since 2003. Many millennials are put off by the cost of raising children.

In the southwestern city of Chengdu, Tracy Wang, the 29-year-old founder of an English enrichment center for children, said she had decided in her early 20s that she did not want children.

“In essence, I don’t like children very much — yes, they might be cute — but I don’t want to give birth to them or take care of them,” Wang said.

“Before, many people used to think it was such an incredulous thought: ‘How could you even think this way?’” she said. “But now, they all understand that you can’t afford it.”

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