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Does China have a depopulation problem?

BACKGROUNDER | The number of residents in the country decreased by 2.1 million last year


Wang Zhao / AFP via Getty Images

Does China have a depopulation problem?
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China’s population has fallen—for a second year in a row. The number of people in China was 1.409 billion in 2023, a decrease of 2.1 million from the year before, according to figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics on Jan. 17. Communist officials are worried about the downward trend and have offered incentives for young couples to have more children. But it will likely prove challenging to boost the birthrate slump, an ongoing problem in many countries around the globe.

Why is China’s population falling? Last year, 11.1 million people died while only 9 million were born. The death rate in 2023 was the highest since 1974, during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. That was partly due to a nationwide surge of COVID-19 that occurred early last year after authorities finally lifted their stringent quarantine measures. Meanwhile, the national birthrate dropped to 6.39 births per 1,000 people, down from 6.77 in 2022, officials reported.

Isn’t China’s former one-child policy to blame? That policy, in place from 1980 through 2015, caused Chinese birthrates to plummet. Combined with the country’s traditional cultural preference for boys, the policy also led to a massive gender imbalance, with men now outnumbering women by about 32 million. Rapid urbanization has lowered the birthrate (and marriage rate) even further due to the higher costs of living and raising children in cities.

What economic effects can we expect? A downswing in the ­number of future workers and ­consumers will hurt businesses. Also, as the proportion of elderly Chinese grows, their retirement pensions and healthcare needs will strain national resources. The government-run Chinese Academy of Sciences projects the pension system will run out of money by 2035.

Aren’t other countries experiencing this problem? Nearly every European country has a death rate exceeding its birthrate. However, many still experienced population growth in the last two years due to immigration. Worldwide fertility is expected to fall to 2.1 births per woman—the replacement level—by 2050. In the United States, population growth is largely being driven by immigration from South and Central America.

Can China reverse its trend? President Xi Jinping last year urged women to “cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing,” and local governments have announced various baby-friendly incentives, from longer maternity leave to housing subsidies and tax deductions. The Wuhan Donghu High-tech Zone is offering 60,000 yuan ($8,400) per child, the highest known subsidy so far. But according to a recent report from the Beijing-based YuWa Population Research Institute, many of these plans haven’t actually been implemented due to insufficient funding or motivation.

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