China says population grew in 2020, rebutting report of drop

A declining and ageing population would have broad effects across the Chinese economy and society.
A declining and ageing population would have broad effects across the Chinese economy and society.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China said its population increased in 2020, countering concerns that its upcoming census will show a possible decline as the nation ages rapidly.

"China's population continued to grow in 2020, and the detailed numbers will be released in the seventh census report," the National Bureau of Statistics said in a statement on Thursday (April 29), without giving further details.

The once-in-a-decade census report was initially meant to be published some time in April, but there has been no indication from the government on the timing of the release.

The Financial Times reported earlier this week that the population declined last year, citing unidentified sources, though the state-run Global Times rebutted that on Thursday, quoting an independent demographer He Yafu saying the population may peak as early as 2022, much earlier than previous predictions.

A declining and ageing population would have broad effects across the economy and society, likely slowing the economy's growth rate and increasing the government's fiscal burden to pay for services such as pensions and healthcare.

The stock prices of infant care and fertility companies fell on the news after a two-day rally which was likely prompted by the reports of a decline in population stoking hopes the government would further loosen birth controls. 

China's birth rate has been declining steadily as the nation grows more prosperous and women’s education levels rose. 

The introduction of the "one-child policy" went further in curbing births to limit the size of the population and even after Beijing relaxed the policy in 2015, there was little impact in reversing the trend.

The birth rate slumped to a record low of 10.48 per 1,000 people in 2019.

The State Council, a top government body, forecast in 2017 that the population would peak "around 2030", while a 2019 report from a state-backed think-tank forecast the population would stop growing in 2029 after reaching 1.42 billion people.

Whether the "population peaked or not, this census likely sent an alarm on the speed of population ageing, and indicates the urgency to change the birth control policy", said Mr Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management.

A faster-than-expected peak in China’s population could spark questioning of the country’s one-child policy that was sometimes brutally enforced with measures including forced abortion. 

Some people mocked the delay in releasing the census results on social media, with one Weibo user commenting on the Financial Times report by saying "Doesn’t this show China’s one-child policy has achieved complete success?"

Another asked "how many people and families suffered from forced abortions? The fact shows that birthrate would naturally drop as the economy grows. Those who made the decisions need to take responsibility."

Such grievances prompted Mr Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times newspaper, to defend the family planning policies.

"I don’t think the new trend in population is a major political problem. I believe the state has abundant measures and capacity to intervene and facilitate adjustment," Mr Hu wrote Wednesday on his personal Weibo account.