China sees fewest births in 2018 since Mao's Great Famine

The number of babies born in 2018 fell by some two million from 2017, to 15.23 million, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.
The number of babies born in 2018 fell by some two million from 2017, to 15.23 million, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Births in China dropped to the lowest level in almost 60 years in 2018, signalling the country's looser two-child policy has done little to reverse its slowing birth rate, and worsening the outlook for growth in the world's second-largest economy.

The number of babies born last year fell to 15.23 million, down by some two million from 2017, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed on Monday (Jan 21). Demographer He Yafu said it was the least since 1961 and the third-lowest since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

The demographics stand to fuel concerns about China's economy, which is on a long-term slowing trajectory even as signs of stabilisation suggest efforts to cushion its deceleration are taking hold. China's expansion was the slowest since the 2009 financial crisis last quarter, as the government grapples with a debt cleanup and ongoing trade war with the United States.

Signs of a steep drop in birth numbers had already emerged, as China's major cities disclosed their birth figures for 2018. Wenzhou, a manufacturing hub and wealthy coastal city, saw its birth number drop to the lowest level in 10 years. A neighbouring city, Ningbo, estimated births declined by about 17 per cent.

A top Chinese research institution projected the population could start shrinking as soon as 2027 - three years earlier than expected - if the birth rate held steady at 1.6 children per woman. The population - at 1.39 billion in 2017, and the world's largest - could fall to 1.172 billion by 2065, it said.

Monday's figures are the lowest since the turmoil of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, during which China's aggressive push to develop industrial power resulted in widespread famine. The total population fell by 10 million in 1960, with a large number believed to have starved to death.

FAMILY PLANNING

In 2016, China eased its family planning policies to allow parents to have as many as two children, instead of one. The nation's Parliament struck "family planning" policies from the latest draft of a sweeping civil code slated for adoption in 2020, the clearest signal yet that the leadership is moving to end limits on the number of children families can have.

The country's infamous "one-child" policy left China with a worker shortage and an ageing population comprised of some 30 million fewer women than men. China's State Council last year projected that about a quarter of its population will be 60 or older by 2030 - up from 13 per cent in 2010. China's labour force fell by 4.7 million in 2018 - the seventh consecutive year of decline.

"China should not only fully relax the family planning policy, but also introduce policies to encourage births," said Guangdong-based demographer He, who advocates for family planning policy changes.

"Long-term low fertility rates will bring a series of negative effects on the economy and society, leading to the increasingly serious ageing of the population, a decreasing labour force and a higher dependency ratio."

"As the number of fertile women is expected to continue to decline in the years to come amid a decreasing willingness to bear children, China will continue to see its birth number decline," Mr He said.