BEIJING >> China’s population growth is falling closer to zero, government data showed Tuesday, adding to strains on an aging society with a shrinking workforce as fewer couples have children.
The population rose by 72 million over the past 10 years to 1.411 billion in 2020, the National Bureau of Statistics announced after a once-a-decade census. It said annual growth averaged 0.53%, down by 0.04% from the previous decade.
Chinese leaders have enforced birth limits since 1980 to restrain population growth but worry the number of working-age people is falling too fast, disrupting efforts to create a prosperous economy. They have eased birth limits, but couples are put off by high costs, cramped housing and job discrimination faced by mothers.
Reflecting the issue’s sensitivity, the statistics agency took the unusual step last month of announcing the population grew in 2020 but gave no total. That looked like an effort to calm companies and investors after The Financial Times reported the census might have found a surprise decline.
China, along with Thailand and some other developing Asian countries that are aging fast, faces what economists call the challenge of whether it can grow rich before it grows old.
China’s working age population of people aged 15 to 59 is declining after hitting a 2011 peak of 925 million. That is boosting wages as companies compete for workers. But it might hamper efforts to develop new industries and self-sustaining economic growth based on consumer spending instead of trade and investment.
Thursday’s announcement gave no details of births last year, but earlier data showed the annual number falling since 2016.
“We are more concerned about the fast decline in the working-age population,” said Lu Jiehua, a professor of population studies at Peking University.
The working-age population was three-quarters of the total in 2011 but will fall to just above half by 2050, according to Lu. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security said in 2016 that group might shrink to 700 million by then.
“If the population gets too old, it will be impossible to solve the problem through immigration,” said Lu. “It needs to be dealt with at an early stage.”
Young couples who might want to have a child face daunting challenges. Many share crowded apartments with their parents. Child care is expensive and maternity leave short. Most single mothers are excluded from medical insurance and social welfare payments. Some women worry giving birth could hurt their careers.
“First, at the interview, if you are married and childless, they may ask, do you have plans to have a kid?” said He Yiwei, who is preparing to return from the United States after obtaining a master’s degree.
“And then when you have a kid, you take pregnancy leave, but will you still have this position after you take the leave?” said He. “Relative to men, when it comes to work, women have to sacrifice more.”
Japan, Germany and some other rich countries face the same challenge of supporting aging populations with fewer workers. But they can draw on decades of investment in factories, technology and foreign assets.
China is a middle-income country with labor-intensive farming and manufacturing. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting Chinese economic growth of 8.4% this year following a rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.
The ruling Communist Party wants to double output per person from 2020 levels by 2035, which would require annual growth of about 4.7%.
The ruling party is making changes, but it isn’t clear whether any are big enough to ease strains on an underfunded retirement system.
The party took its most dramatic step when restrictions in effect since 1980 that limited many Chinese couples to having only one child were eased in 2015 to allow two.
However, China’s birth rate, paralleling trends in South Korea, Thailand and other Asian economies, already was falling before the one-child rule. The average number of children per mother tumbled from above six in the 1960s to below three by 1980, according to the World Bank.
Demographers say official birth limits concealed what would have been a further fall in the number of children per family.
The one-child limits, enforced with threats of fines, loss of jobs and other pressure, led to abuses including forced abortions. A preference for sons led parents to kill or abandon baby girls, leading to warnings millions of men might be unable to find a wife, fueling social tension.
The ruling party says it prevented 400 million potential births, averting shortages of food and water. But demographers say if China followed Asian trends, the number of additional babies without controls might have been as low as a few million.
After limits were eased in 2015, many couples with one child had a second but total births fell in 2017-18 because fewer had any at all.
Some researchers argue China’s population already is shrinking, which they say should prompt drastic policy changes.
Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the population started to fall in 2018. His book “Big Country With An Empty Nest” argued against the one-child limits.
“China’s economic, social, educational, tech, defense and foreign policies are built on the foundation of wrong numbers,” said Yi.
Chinese regulators talk about raising the official retirement age of 55 to increase the pool of workers.
Female professionals welcome a chance to stay in satisfying careers. But others resent being forced to work more years. And keeping workers on the job, unable to help look after children, might discourage their daughters from having more.
An earlier government estimate said China’s population edged above 1.4 billion people for the first time in 2019, rising by 4.7 million over the previous year.
The latest data put China closer to be overtaken by India as the most populous country, which is expected to happen by 2025.
India’s population last year was estimated by the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs at 1.38 billion, or 1.5% behind China. The agency says India should grow by 0.9% annually through 2025.
Already, populations likely are shrinking in “a few pockets around China,” said Sabu Padmadas, a demographer at Britain’s University of Southampton who consulted on China for the U.N. Population Fund.
Tuesday’s announcement said 25 of 31 provinces and regions in China showed population growth over the past decade. It gave no indication whether numbers in the other areas declined or held steady.
In Wenzhou, a coastal business center south of Shanghai, the number of new births reported last year fell 19% from 2019.
“Eventually, what will happen is, it will spread,” said Padmadas.