China has recorded a total population of 1.41 billion with a growth rate in the decade up to 2020 falling to the lowest level since the 1950s.
The statistics of the once-a-decade census released on Tuesday show that China has narrowly missed its target set in 2016 to increase its population to about 1.42 billion by 2020. The government has been worried that a declining population may depress economic growth. Besides, an increasingly belligerent China with ambitions of being a superpower is finding it difficult to get suitable recruits for its defence forces.
China had switched from its harsh one-child policy, rolled out in 1980 to curtail its population explosion at the time, to a two-child limit in 2016 aimed at increasing its population but the results have fallen short of expectations.
This is likely to build pressure on the Xi Jinping government to offer more incentives for families to have more children. There are also fears sparked by a news report that the population may have declined in 2020 compared to 2019.
The controversy has arisen after a Financial Times report in April said people in the know about the 2020 census said it was expected to show the population, which rose above 1.4 billion in 2019, declined for the first time since the ruling Communist Party took power in 1949.
However, the Chinese government machinery had swung into damage-control mode after the report. “According to our understanding, in 2020, China’s population continued to grow,” the country’s National Bureau of Statistics had said on its website.
The comment itself is considered a significant development as the Chinese government does not normally react to such media reports.
The 2020 statistics of China’s once-a-decade census, released on Tuesday, showed the population of mainland China increased 5.38% to 1.41 billion.
The preceding 2010 census had recorded a rise of 5.84% to 1.34 billion. This was a dramatic decline after the double-digit percentage growth registered in all of China's previous six official population surveys which started in 1953.
In recent months, China's state media has been increasingly bleak on the outlook, saying the population may start to shrink in the next few years. The United Nations predicts the number of people living in mainland China will peak in 2030 before declining.
The 2020 number was actually slightly higher than the 1.4005 billion in 2019 estimated in a smaller official survey released in February last year.
However, experts point out that the bright spot in the census data was an unexpected increase in the proportion of young people as 17.95% of the population was 14 or younger in 2020, compared with 16.6% in 2010.
Declining birth rate
From 2016 to 2019, the annual birth rate mostly declined with the exception of 2016. China has not disclosed the birth rate for 2020.
"A sharp decline in the number of births is a sure thing, and all kinds of evidence support this claim," a Reuters report quoted Huang Wenzheng, a Beijing-based demography expert as saying. "It doesn't take published census data to determine that China is facing a massive drop in births," Huang said. Even if China's population didn't decline in 2020, the expert said, "it will in 2021 or 2022, or very soon."
Young urban couples value their independence and careers more than raising a family despite parental pressure to have children. The sharp increase in the cost of living in China’s big cities has also discouraged couples from having children.