First time in decades, China’s population shrinks

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China’s population shrank for the first time in decades last year as its birthrate plunged, official figures showed Tuesday, adding to pressure on leaders to keep the economy growing despite an aging workforce and at a time of rising tension with the U.S.

Despite the official numbers, some experts believe China’s population has been in decline for a few years, a dramatic turn in a country that once sought to control such growth through a one-child policy.

Many wealthy countries are struggling with how to respond to aging populations, which can be a drag on economic growth as shrinking numbers of workers try to support growing numbers of elderly people.

But the demographic change will be especially difficult to manage in a middle-income country like China, which does not have the resources to care for an aging population in the same way that one like Japan does. Over time, that will likely slow its economy and perhaps even the world’s, and could potentially keep inflation higher in many developed economies.

“China has become older before it has become rich,” said Yi Fuxian, a demographer and expert on Chinese population trends at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A slowing economy could also pose a political problem for the ruling Communist Party, if shrinking opportunities foment public discontent. Anger over strict COVID-19 lockdowns, which were a drag on the economy, spilled over late last year into protests that in some cases called for leader Xi Jinping to step down — a rare direct challenge to the party.

The National Bureau of Statistics reported Tuesday that the country had 850,000 fewer people at the end of 2022 than the previous year. The tally includes only the population of mainland China, excluding Hong Kong and Macao as well as foreign residents.

Over 1 million fewer babies were born than the previous year amid a slowing economy and widespread pandemic lockdowns, according to official figures. The bureau reported 9.56 million births in 2022; deaths ticked up to 10.41 million.

It wasn’t clear if the population figures were affected by a widespread COVID-19 outbreak following the easing of pandemic restrictions last month. China recently reported 60,000 COVID-related deaths since early December, but some experts believe the government is likely underreporting deaths.

The last time China is believed to have experienced a population decline was during the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous drive for collective farming and industrialization launched by then-leader Mao Zedong at the end of the 1950s that produced a massive famine that killed tens of millions of people.

China’s population has begun to decline nine to 10 years earlier than Chinese officials predicted and the United Nation projected, said Yi, the demographer. At 1.4 billion, the country has long been the world’s most populous nation, but is expected to soon be overtaken by India, if it has not already.

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