The declines in fertility, low-birth rates, COVID-related restrictions, and the lingering effects of China's previous “one-child” policy have all resulted in China's first population fall since the 1960s. This is the first time it has dropped since the years of the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong's sweeping social and economic overhaul that caused mass death and famine.
The National Bureau of Statistics of China reported a decline in the population of 850,000 as of the end of 2022, still leaving mainland China with a massive population of 1.411 billion. The implications for the world are huge and could put President Xi Jinping's declared ambition of achieving world dominance at risk. Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Khalifa University in Dubai, shared with NPR his opinion that the days of China’s unending economic growth could be coming to a close:
“The era of rapid growth, double-digit growth, of cheap labor, of a younger labor force–that era is now really at a close,” Gietel-Basten stated.
While China has always been the world's most populous nation, many predictions suggest India will be crowned the next population king in 2023.
In reality, India is already within striking distance, as the United Nations estimates its population to be 1.406 billion.
China introduced the one-child policy in the late 1970s to reduce the number of children born and provide a boost to the economy. However, it may have backfired, as by 2022, more people died than were born (9.56 million births versus 10.41 million deaths). The changing demographics are leading to an aging population, which is likely to pave the way for lower productivity.
While it is true that the People's Republic of China (PRC) finally ended the policy in 2015 and even allowed a third child to be born in 2021, the ship may have already left the port. The younger generation is increasingly worried about the costs of having children, and a majority of women aren't keen on starting families, according to an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, Yun Zhou:
“From my own research, what I've seen is women often resisted and often prioritized their paid employment and prioritized their pursuit of individualistic ideals over this sustained incentivization,” Zhou declared.
The New York Times describes the anticipated demographic shift as follows:
“In the long run, we are going to see a China the world has never seen,” said Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine who is a specialist in the demographics of China. “It will no longer be the young, vibrant, growing population. We will start to appreciate China, in terms of its population, as an old and shrinking population.”
With the decline in its population on top of its aging workforce and the effects of its dictatorial COVID-related lockdowns, the Chinese economy grew at a slow rate of 3 percent in 2022, the lowest rate in nearly 40 years. The United States, meanwhile, has also witnessed a decrease in birth rates, with one in four parents reported to be putting off having children due to climate concerns, but we haven't witnessed a similar drop in population due to immigration, both legal and illegal.
Projections aren’t always proven true. And Xi is promoting higher birth rates through incentives and rhetoric. However, it's difficult to envision China changing its course. For those insistent on claiming the People's Republic of China will be the next top superpower, you may want to let these developments unfold first.