A sensitive census

State bureau refutes claim population declined


More of these required

China has reported an increase in population every year since the famines of the early 1960s. Since 1965 the number of mainland Chinese has doubled from about 700 million to just over 1.4 billion last year.

However, the debate this week was whether 2020 was going to be the year that broke the trend: the first in over five decades in which the population has declined.

The basis for this prediction is the once-a-decade National Census, the publication of which has been delayed.

On April 16 a spokesperson for the National Bureau of Statistics, said the results of the census were being held back because the accompanying communique needed more work. That immediately fuelled public interest, making “population decline” a favourite topic on social media.

On Tuesday, the Financial Times said it had confirmed the decline – a dip in the Chinese population below 1.4 billion – with two people who had seen the census data. But the figure was considered “very sensitive and would not be released until multiple government departments had reached a consensus on the data and its implications”, the newspaper added.

Two days later the National Bureau of Statistics published a statement refuting the FT article: “China’s population continued to grow in 2020, and specific data will be released in the seventh national census communique,” it said.

After studying some of the data released at a provincial level, however, local analysts had been predicting major declines in birth rates for months. Some provinces have seen drops of nearly a third, warned James Liang (a co-founder of Ctrip and now a professor at the Guanghua School of Management) in an article published on

Some have been blaming Covid for the severity of the plunge, but with the official death toll at 4,636 it’s tough to see how that would have a meaningful impact. Instead it is the usual suspects that others point to: people are marrying later (or not at all); there’s a major decrease in numbers of women of childbearing age because of the One-Child Policy; and the same policy has forced a shift in societal norms in which many families are happy to have just one child, even though they can now have two.

Note that in the final year of the much maligned policy, 16.55 million children were born. Last year the total had fallen to 14.65 million.

Indeed, the public response to the loosening of restrictions on births over the last five years has been so lacklustre that most experts are calling for an instant lifting of all caps on population control.

“Population trends are like oil tankers… you can’t just suddenly slam on the brakes nor suddenly accelerate. If you want to change course you should plan for it in advance,” was the verdict in a widely- discussed report from a think tank linked to the People’s Bank of China, which called for policymakers to act more decisively. “With the slightest hesitation, we’ll miss the precious window of opportunity,” it warned.

The central bank’s think tank is calling for a total deregulation of birth control policies, accompanied by more generous state support for families that have more children. Otherwise economic growth could stall before China achieves the status of a high-income country – falling into the so-called ‘middle-income trap’, it projected.

The report outlines ‘demographic transition’ as comprising four stages: agrarian, increasing industrialisation, a third stage in which a society begins to age, and a fourth “deeply” aging stage, which China will enter in 2022. It noted that most countries entered phase four with per capita incomes of $30,000, but China’s would only be $11,000.

The same report talked about how India’s population is growing at above replacement rate, meaning it will have more working-age people than retirees well into the future. The US was also mentioned as having the capacity to attract a younger workforce through immigration, putting China at an “economic disadvantage”.

There is talk of retirement ages being raised in response to the demographic crisis. Yet China’s best long-term solution to growing the workforce again is getting people to have more children.

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