China’s historic population decline raises the possibility that India has already overtaken China in size

A crowd of people in New Delhi, India
Last summer, the United Nations projected that India would overtake China as the world's most populous country before the middle of 2023.
Anindito Mukherjee—Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Chinese authorities announced that the country’s population declined for the first time in decades, an event that came earlier than expected thanks to a COVID-era baby bust.

The announcement increases the chance that another long-expected demographic shift may have already happened: India overtaking China as the world’s most populous country.

Last summer, the United Nations projected that India would take the No. 1 position at some point before the middle of 2023.

The United Nations’ estimates for the end of 2022 still put China in first place, giving China 1.426 billion people and India 1.422 billion. The UN forecast that the two countries would have switched places by July 1, as India grows to 1.429 billion and China holds steady at 1.426 billion.

Yet the 2022 population China reported on Tuesday suggests a faster rate of decline than the UN expected. The UN’s model projected a drop of 76,000. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population instead shrunk by 850,000 to 1.416 billion.

A larger-than-projected decline narrows the gap between China and India’s populations, raising the possibility that India has already overtaken China in size.

The United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs said its projections were “based on the best information available at the time” when they were released last summer. It continued that “projections are inherently uncertain, and they typically become more uncertain over time.”

When was India forecast to overtake China in population?

If India has passed China in population, past forecasts of when the switch would happen were wildly off.

In 2007, Chinese experts predicted that the country’s population would peak at 1.5 billion in 2033. Before the pandemic, the UN thought the swap wouldn’t happen until 2027. When it released updated projections last year, UN moved its projected date forward to 2023 as China reported a rapid decline in new births throughout the pandemic. Households delayed having children due to disruptions from COVID controls and economic uncertainty.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics also reported on Tuesday a fall in new births to the lowest level on record and a slight uptick in death rates.

What is India’s population?

India has not conducted a census of its population since 2011, when it reported a population of 1.2 billion. A count was scheduled for 2021, but New Delhi has postponed the census several times, citing the COVID pandemic.

India’s official forecast doesn’t put its population as high as United Nations estimates. A 2020 report from the country’s National Commission on Population projected populations of 1.376 billion and 1.388 billion for March 2022 and March 2023 respectively. Based on those estimates, India wouldn’t overtake China’s current population until 2026.

But India’s official estimates are likely to be an undercount, since poor and rural households in India often don’t register new births, skewing the data used to estimate population size.

The gap between India and China will only grow after the two countries officially switch places on the population rankings. The UN estimates that India’s population will swell to 1.668 billion by 2050. China’s population, by then, will shrink to 1.317 billion. 

Update, January 18, 2022: This piece has been updated with a comment from the United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs.

Learn how to navigate and strengthen trust in your business with The Trust Factor, a weekly newsletter examining what leaders need to succeed. Sign up here.

Read More

ChinaIndiaSupply ChainsCybersecurityUkraine Invasion