China's record-low birth rate underscores population challenges

There were 8.5 births per 1,000 people last year, the lowest in data back to 1978.
There were 8.5 births per 1,000 people last year, the lowest in data back to 1978.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China's birth rate dropped to a new low in 2020, confirming the demographic challenge facing the government as it tries to deal with a shrinking labour force and growing population of elderly people.

There were 8.5 births per 1,000 people last year, the lowest in data back to 1978, according to the latest yearbook from the National Bureau of Statistics.

The government didn't give reasons for the tumbling birth rate, but the new figures confirm population growth in the world's No. 2 economy is slowing dramatically, with some demographers estimating it could start falling as soon as this year.

The number of newborns may decline again this year from the 12 million born in 2020, a health commission official said in July.

The data released over the weekend showed a higher birth rate in the years 2011-2017 than previous estimates, likely due to revisions based on the just-completed 2020 national census.

That change likely reflects under-counting of births in previous years, according to independent demographer He Yafu.

In the years when it was illegal for most couples to have a second child, some parents wouldn't officially report a newborn if they were over the quota until the child turned six and needed to register for school, Mr He said.

The total population for the years 2011-2019 was also revised up, with the figure reaching 1.41 billion people at the end of 2020.

Missing from the release this year was a provincial breakdown of birth rates. That data was previously included and had shown a marked decline in the birth rate in the western region of Xinjiang.

Much of that decline was due to policies to control "unscheduled births," a regional official said earlier this year.

Researchers have said that Beijing is disproportionately reducing births among its Muslim minority in the region as part of a crackdown.

China has denied the allegations, saying parents in all the nation's ethnic groups are less willing to have children for reasons including better education and rapid urbanisation.

The 2020 data for Xinjiang may still be available when the province releases its own statistical yearbook.

The number of marriages nationwide continued dropping last year amid the pandemic, and the number of divorces also fell for the first time.

There was an 11 per cent decrease in the number of offences against public order which were handled by the public security organs, and an almost 2 per cent drop in criminal cases such as murder, robbery or fraud.