BEIJING – The number of working-age people in China has shrunk over the past decade as its aging population barely increased, a census showed on Tuesday, adding to economic challenges for Chinese leaders with ambitious strategic goals .
The total population grew to 1.411 billion people last year, up 72 million from 2010, according to the once-a-decade census. The low growth fell closer to zero as fewer couples had children.
This adds to the challenges for Chinese leaders who want to create a prosperous society and increase their global influence by developing technology industries and self-sustaining economic growth based on consumer spending.
The ruling Communist Party has imposed birth rates since 1980 to curb population growth, but is worried about the shrinking workforce. It has eased birth limits, but couples are discouraged by high costs, cramped housing, and occupational discrimination against mothers.
The population of potential workers aged 15 to 59 fell to 894 million last year, the National Bureau of Statistics reported. This would be a 5% drop from the 2011 high of 925 million. The percentage of children in the population increased slightly from 2010, but the age group 60 and over grew faster.
The changes in birth limits and other policies “have promoted a rebound in the birth population,” bureau director Ning Jizhe said at a press conference.
However, Ning said 12 million babies were born last year, which would be an 18% drop from 14.6 million in 2019.
China, along with Thailand and some other rapidly aging developing countries in Asia, faces what economists call the challenge of whether it can get rich before it gets older. Some warn that China is facing a “demographic time bomb.”
The potential shortage of workers needed to generate economic activity and tax revenue comes as President Xi Jinping’s government increases military spending and efforts to create global competitors in electric cars and other technologies.
Reflecting the sensitivity of the matter, the statistical agency took the unusual step last month by announcing that the population had increased in 2020 but did not give a total. It sounded like an effort to calm businesses and investors after the Financial Times reported the census could have seen a surprise drop.
“We are more concerned about the rapid decline in the proportion of the working-age population to the total population,” said Lu Jiehua, professor of demographic studies at Peking University.
The working-age population will grow from three-quarters of the total in 2011 to just over half by 2050, according to Lu.
âIf the population ages too much, it will be impossible to solve the problem through immigration,â Lu said. âIt needs to be addressed at an early stage.â
Couples who want a child face daunting challenges.
Many share crowded apartments with their parents. Childcare is expensive and maternity leave is short. Most single mothers are excluded from medical insurance and social benefits.
Some women worry that childbirth will hurt their careers.
âWhen you have a child, you take maternity leave, but will you still be in that position after you take the leave?â said He Yiwei, who is returning from the United States after graduating with a master’s degree. “Compared to men, when it comes to work, women have to sacrifice more.”
Japan, Germany and some other rich countries face the same challenge of supporting aging populations with fewer workers. But they can benefit from investments in factories, technology and foreign assets. In contrast, China is a middle-income country with labor-intensive agriculture and manufacturing.
The decline in the working-age population “will put a cap on China’s potential economic growth,” Yue Su of the Economist Intelligence Unit said in a report. This is a âpowerful incentive to introduce reforms aimed at improving productivityâ.
The International Monetary Fund forecasts Chinese economic growth of 8.4% this year after a rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. The Communist Party wants to double production per person from 2020 levels by 2035, which would require annual growth of around 4.7%.
Figures reported Thursday reflect a gain of 11.8 million people, or 0.8%, from the official estimate for 2019, when the government says the population topped 1.4 billion for the first time.
The working-age population has fallen to 63.3% of the total, from 70.1% ten years ago. The under-14 group increased 1.3 percentage points to 17.9%. Those 60 and over – a group of 264 million people who alone would be the world’s fourth largest country – rose 5.4 percentage points to 18.7% of the population.
“Labor resources are always plentiful,” said Ning of the statistics agency.
The party reached its biggest milestone in 2015 when rules that limited many couples to having only one child were relaxed to allow two.
However, China’s birth rate, along with trends in South Korea, Thailand and other Asian economies, was already dropping before the one-child rule. The average number of children per mother fell from more than six in the 1960s to less than three in 1980, according to the World Bank.
Demographers say official birth limits concealed what would have been a further drop in the number of children per family.
The one-child limit, imposed by threats of fines or loss of employment, has led to abuse, including forced abortions. A preference for sons has led parents to kill baby girls, prompting warnings that millions of men may not be able to find wives, fueling social tensions.
Data on Thursday showed that China had 105.7 million men and boys for every 100 women and girls, or about 33 million more men.
The ruling party says the policy has averted food and water shortages by preventing up to 400 million potential births. But demographers say if China followed Asian trends, the number of extra unchecked babies could have been as low as a few million.
After the limits were relaxed in 2015, many couples with one child had a second, but the total number of births fell as fewer had at all.
Some researchers claim that the Chinese population is already shrinking.
Yi Fuxian, senior researcher in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the population began to decline in 2018. Her book “Big Country With An Empty Nest” argues against the limit of a child.
âChina’s economic, social, educational, technological, defense and foreign policies are based on wrong numbers,â Yi said.
Chinese regulators are talking about raising the official retirement age from 55 to increase the pool of workers.
Professional women appreciate the opportunity to pursue fulfilling careers. But others don’t like being forced to work more years. And keeping workers at work, unable to care for children, could discourage their daughters from having more.
The latest data places China on the brink of being overtaken by India as the most populous country, which is expected to happen by 2025.
Last year, India’s population was estimated by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs at 1.38 billion, 1.5 percent behind China. The agency says India is expected to grow at 0.9% per year through 2025.
Wu reported from Taipei. AP researcher Yu Bing and video producer Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report.