When will China’s population peak? It depends who you ask
Data show the country is facing a demographic crisis, with an ageing population and young couples having fewer children.
Yvaine Ye, 08/25/22
When will China’s population, the world’s largest, peak? It’s a point that demographers say is fast approaching. The country’s health department announced this month that the population will peak and then begin to shrink in the next three years. Others think it could happen much sooner.
“The turning point is right around the corner,” says Yong Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “I won’t be surprised if population decline is reported at the end of this year.”
After years of falling birth rates, the National Health Commission wrote in an article published online in early August that China’s population growth has slowed significantly and will start to decline between 2023 and 2025. According to an estimate published last month in a peer-reviewed Chinese journal, Social Science Journal1, Wei Chen, a demographer at Renmin University in Beijing, concluded that, on the basis of national census data released in 2020, China’s population might have already peaked in 2021 (see ‘Projected peak’).
Projected peak (請至原網頁參看統計圖)
Last year, China’s total population increased by only 480,000 people, to just more than 1.41 billion, with a natural growth rate — the difference between the numbers of births and deaths — of close to zero. The country’s birth rate declined for the fifth consecutive year to 7.5 births per thousand people, and only 10 million babies were born in 2021, the lowest since 1949.
Shift in attitude
In the 1960s, China saw a major baby boom after the Great Chinese Famine. In a bid to limit rapid population growth, the government launched a one-child policy in 1980 that restricted most families to having only a single child. The strategy brought down the country’s population growth rate, which dropped from 2.5% in 1970 to 0.7% in 2000. But the policy did not end until 2016 (see ‘China’s growth rate’). Many demographers, including Jianxin Li at Peking University in Beijing, think the policy ending came too late to reverse the country’s crashing fertility rate. Li projected as early as 1997 that China’s population could peak in 2024 if the population-control policy remained in place.
Chinese Growth Rate (請至原網頁參看統計圖)
Data show that, in 2020, the average age of men and women at their first marriage was around 29 and 28 years old, respectively. In 2010, women were 24 years old and men were 26 when entering their first marriage. In China, most people choose to have children after they’re married, and having children later in life means that women tend to have fewer children, Song adds.
China’s “tsunami of falling birth rate” is exacerbated by the smaller number of women entering childbearing age, Cai says. The number of babies born in the 1990s was much smaller than in the 1980s. That generation of women is now at childbearing age, but will have fewer children in total than the previous generation. “Demographically, there is a strong negative momentum,” Cai says.
At the same time, the baby boomers born in the 1960s are reaching their 60s. “In the next 10 to 20 years, China will see a surge in its older population, which will become a major challenge for the society,” Song says. Currently, more than 18% of China’s population is over 60 years old. The proportion is expected to increase to one-third by 2050, reaching 300 million people.
An ageing population is an expense for families and a fiscal problem for the government. Cai’s team has projected that public spending on health care will double between 2015 and 2050 because of population ageing. “We have to start preparing resources needed to take care of the older population now to cope with the ageing challenge,” Song says.
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