China denies reports that population is falling

People on an escalator in Beijing (Andy Wong/AP)
People on an escalator in Beijing (Andy Wong/AP) (AP)
10:33am, Thu 29 Apr 2021
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China’s population grew last year, the government said, following a news report a once-a-decade census might have found a decline, possibly adding to downward pressure on economic growth.

The National Bureau of Statistics gave no population figure, which it said would be reported later.

But its unusual decision to comment on the report by The Financial Times reflected the political sensitivity of the issue.

The Financial Times reported people familiar with 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.

According to our understanding, in 2020, China’s population continued to grow

Chinese leaders have tried to restrain population growth since 1980.

The total has long been expected to peak in coming decades and decline in line with trends in other Asian countries.

But an outright fall so early would increase challenges for leaders who are trying to shore up economic growth and raise incomes.

“According to our understanding, in 2020, China’s population continued to grow,” the NBS said on its website.

Developed economies such as Japan and Germany are also trying to figure out how to support aging populations with shrinking workforces. But they can draw on decades of investment in factories, technology and foreign assets, while China has less wealth and its industries need young workers.

If China’s population is peaking already, that may not change much about the outlook this decade, but it could have major economic implications further ahead

Researchers at the Chinese central bank argued in a report in March that the birth rate is lower than official estimates suggest, though they did not say the total population had declined. To avert a labour shortage, they said, Beijing needs to make it easier and cheaper to raise children.

“Compared with developed countries, the demographic transition happened faster in our country, the transition period is shorter, and aging problems and sub-replacement fertility are severer,” the report said.

Already, China’s population of potential workers aged 15 to 59 has shrunk from its 2011 peak of 925 million, according to government data. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said in 2016 that the group might shrink to 700 million by 2050.

China’s population rose by 4.7 million people in 2019 to just above 1.4 billion, according to government data. That was growth of just 0.3%.

“If China’s population is peaking already, that may not change much about the outlook this decade, but it could have major economic implications further ahead,” Mark Williams, chief Asia economist for Capital Economics, said in a report.

The International Monetary Fund is forecasting Chinese economic growth of 8.4% this year following a rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. The ruling party says it wants to double output per person from 2020 levels by 2035, which would require annual growth of about 4.7%.

China is on track to be overtaken by India before 2025 as the most populous country.

China still has a bigger workforce, but India’s forecast total of just over one billion in 2035 will be 120 million more than China, the central bank report said. It said India’s lead would swell to 270 million workers by 2050.

China’s ruling party is making changes, but it is not clear whether they can reverse a long-term decline in worker numbers and the strain on an underfunded retirement system.

Beijing took its most dramatic step in 2015 when restrictions that limited many couples to one child were eased to allow two. The impact was modest: Many couples with one child had a second, but total births in 2017-18 declined because others had none.

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