Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 582, 19 January 2023

China: First population decline since 1960 highlights demographic crisis
Avishka Ashok

In the news
On 17 January, China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced that the country had recorded a decline of 8,50,000 people in its population, bringing the total population index to 1.4118 billion. For the first time since 1960, the population has declined in China. The birth rate also dropped to the lowest on record 6.77 per 1000 people, further aggravating the demographic crisis.
 
The bureau pointed the population decline was caused due to the “drop in people’s willingness to have babies, the delay in marriage and pregnancy, as well as a fall in the number of women of child-bearing age.”
 
Issues at large
First, China’s one-child policy. In 1979, the government implemented a one-child policy as it feared that a population explosion would slow down economic development and strain the existing resources. The policy resulted in abortions, gender-biased pregnancies, gender imbalance, and increased usage of contraceptives. The gender-coloured abortions also limited the number of women with child-bearing capabilities in present times. However, it took the administration two decades to realize the policy's impact. By the 2000s, China observed the changes in its demography but continued to predict that the population would grow until the 2040s. In 2016, the CPC relaxed the policy and allowed two children per family. Although the population jumped by one million in 2017, the numbers dropped ever since. In 2021, the one-child policy was completely scrapped after China recorded a drop in birth rates for the first time since 1960. 
 
Second, the social circumstances. Over the decades, as China improved its economic status to have the second largest GDP, the cost of living rose exponentially. As of 2023, Hong Kong is the fourth most expensive city to live. YuWa Population Research, Beijing, reported that China is one of the most expensive countries to raise a child. The head of the National Bureau of Statistics also explained that China’s social and economic development is another factor for China’s lower fertility rates . The cost of education and the poor economic prospects further discouraged the parents from opting for more than one child. A similar trend is also observed in the neighbouring countries of Japan and South Korea, where the young prefer to build a career before building a family. Chinese men also find it difficult to find a wife and settle down due to the increasing gender imbalance. As of 2022, the sex ratio was 104.69 men to 100 women. 
 
Third, the government’s efforts to increase the population. By 2016, the CPC realised the ill effects of the one-child policy and began offering benefits and subsidies to encourage child birth. The measures include providing cash handouts, subsidies on bills, child-raising incentives, providing loans for child care, better maternal care facilities and longer leaves for child-care, and paternity leaves in some regions. Shenzhen became the latest city to provide handouts worth USD 1,476 for couples with three children. In some cities, the authorities have wiped out post-school tutoring institutions to make education more inclusive for all. 
 
In perspective
If the demographic patterns of Japan and South Korea are considered, increasing the birth rate is much more difficult than controlling it. The Chinese government will face tremendous challenges on the issue. 
 
Second, the death rate. The CPC’s leadership brought the number of deaths per 1,000 people from 20.653 in 1960 to 6.93 in two decades, after which the figure remained below 7 until 2012. However, the death rate has been increasing each year, rising steeply since 2020. The highest since 2012 was recorded in 2022. It is possible that the decline was therefore caused by the unusual circumstances. 
 
Lastly, if China is unable to pick up its demography, the country would be forced to face challenges such as a decrease in the working population and the cheap labour that helped build the economy decades ago. The rise in labour costs will lead to an increase in the price of manufactured products. The expanding elderly population will put a strain on the pension system.

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