China's birth rate at record low; workforce continues to shrink

China has struggled to arrest the country's declining birth rate for years, including easing its stringent one-child policy. Researchers have forecast that the country's total population will begin to decline around 2028. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
China has struggled to arrest the country's declining birth rate for years, including easing its stringent one-child policy. Researchers have forecast that the country's total population will begin to decline around 2028. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING • China's birth rate last year dropped to the lowest level since as far back as 1949 and the labour force continued to shrink, in the latest sign of slowing growth prospects for the world's second-largest economy.

The number of births per 1,000 people declined to 10.48, the lowest level on record according to National Bureau of Statistics data going back to when the Communist Party took power.

China's working-age population - those aged 16 to 59 - declined by 890,000, figures released yesterday showed.

The number of newborns in 2019 fell to 14.65 million, a decrease of 580,000 from the year before.

China has struggled to arrest the country's declining birth rate for years, easing its stringent one-child policy in 2013 and allowing each family to have two children in 2016.

Still, top leaders have resisted calls to fully lift restrictions on the number of babies each family can have even as the birth rate in 2018 had dropped to lows unseen since the turmoil of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward.

"The historically low number of births in part reflects declining birth numbers since the 1990s, but also reveals something much more profound about the social transformations that are still unfolding in China, and can be worrisome," said University of California at Irvine sociology professor Wang Feng.

Domestic migration on a massive scale, rapid urbanisation, a cutthroat work culture, the high cost of housing and education, and rampant gender discrimination all contribute to the low birth rate and may continue to do so for decades to come, Prof Wang said.

Local authorities have addressed the demographic issues at annual legislative sessions currently taking place across China. Zhejiang, a wealthy eastern province, pledged to prioritise increasing childcare service for children under three.

In central Henan province, a member of the provincial political consultancy body has called for the immediate abolishment of so-called family-planning regulation to encourage births. Even if the government lifts all childbirth restrictions, "that would have only a small impact on reversing the fertility trend, as the willingness to have three or more children is very low", said Guangdong-based demographer He Dafu in an interview with local media on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the share of people older than 65 grew to 12.6 per cent last year, from 2018's 11.9 per cent.

China's population is ageing more quickly than most of the world's developed economies, a hangover from decades of family-planning policies. In 2001, those aged 65 and older accounted for more than 7 per cent of the country and the proportion has grown at a quicker pace each year ever since.

China's elderly population is expected to grow by a total of 224 million between 2010 and 2040, with an average annual growth rate of 3.62 per cent and net increase of 7.46 million, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates. Researchers also forecast China's total population will begin to decline around 2028.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2020, with the headline China's birth rate at record low; workforce continues to shrink. Subscribe