Is China’s population growing or shrinking? It’s a touchy topic for Beijing

April 30, 2021, 11:09 AM UTC

When China’s government releases its census in coming days or weeks, the figures will likely reflect a reality of China’s changing demographics: China’s population is rapidly aging and, demographers project, on a path toward eventually shrinking. But this week, the Financial Times and the Chinese government have provided conflicting reports about whether China’s population is already in decline, highlighting an issue that has major implications for the economic future of the world’s most populous country.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) was scheduled to release the census it conducts once every decade in early April. But in mid-April a government spokesperson said publication of the census had been delayed for an unspecified length of time to allow for “more preparation work.”

China still has not indicated when it may release the report, according to Chinese media.

But on Wednesday, the Financial Times, citing “people familiar with the research,” reported that when published the census will show that China’s population was smaller in 2020 than it was in 2019, the first year-on-year drop in over five decades. In 2019, China reported that its population surpassed 1.4 billion people for the first time, up 4.67 million from the previous year. This year, China’s population fell back down below 1.4 billion, according to the Financial Times.

Subscribe to Eastworld for weekly insight on what’s dominating business in Asia, delivered free to your inbox.

China had last reported that its population decreased in the early 1960s, after tens of millions died from widespread famines and a disastrous “Great Leap Forward” policy that pushed millions of farmers to shift from growing crops to making goods like steel.

China’s NBS refuted the Financial Times report the next day.

“According to our understanding, in 2020, our country’s population continued to grow,” the National Bureau of Statistics said in a one-sentence statement on its website.

Bert Hofman, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, says that it would be a “surprise” if the upcoming census shows that China’s population is already shrinking given past projections.

“The United Nations projections are for China’s population to start declining in the coming decade [2030s],” he said.  

The rate at which China’s population grows (or shrinks) is a touchy topic for Beijing. “A declining population would mean that the total size of the economy might decline, unless productivity grows faster than population declines,” says Hofman, who notes that as China’s labor force contracts, it will become harder and harder for younger workers to support the rising costs of pensions and health care for the elderly.

“China’s rapid demographic transition has brought these issues into focus,” he says.

China’s central government has long been aware that more babies are needed to sustain economic growth.

In an effort to reverse the birth dearth, China on Jan. 1, 2016, relaxed its decades-old “one child” policy, allowing couples to have two children.

A two-year bump in China’s birth rates followed the policy change. After registering 16.6 million new births in 2015, births ticked up to 17.9 million and 17.2 million the next two years, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

But by 2018, the baby boom fizzled out. That year, China registered 15.2 million births.

At the start of the pandemic, Chinese authorities hoped pandemic lockdowns would spur another baby boom. Local officials proposed policies like government matchmaking services and even taxing couples without children.

Instead, the pandemic produced a baby bust. (China wasn’t alone in its disappointment.)

China will release the final number of births in its upcoming census report, but preliminary figures suggest births will be lower in 2020 than in 2019. In February, China’s Ministry of Public Security released its own statistic accounting for the number of births in 2020. Unlike the National Bureau of Statistics report, the Ministry of Public Security’s numbers only account for births in registered households—meaning children who were born in violation of China’s two-child policy or in migrant villages that fall outside China’s hukou, or household registration, system are not included.

In 2020, the Ministry of Public Security reported that 10.035 million babies were born in China, a 15% decline from the 11.79 million babies it reported from 2019.

China’s government is reportedly considering measures including increasing its two-child policy to three. But demographers doubt such efforts can alter the long-term trend.

“Birth rates in the richer provinces are also considerably lower than in the poorer provinces, indicating that as China grows richer, birth rates will further decline,” says Hofman.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

Our mission to make business better is fueled by readers like you. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.