China records 1st population fall in decades as births drop

BEIJING (AP) — China has announced its first population decline in decades as what has been the world’s most populous nation ages and its birthrate plunges.

The National Bureau of Statistics reported Tuesday that the country had 850,000 fewer people at the end of 2022 than the previous year. The tally includes only the population of mainland China, excluding Hong Kong and Macao as well as foreign residents.

That left a total of 1.41 billion people, with 9.56 million births against 10.41 million deaths, the bureau said at a briefing on Tuesday.

Men outnumbered women by 722.06 million to 689.69 million, a result of the strict one-child policy that only officially ended in 2016 and a traditional preference for male offspring to carry on the family name.

Since abandoning the policy, China has sought to encourage families to have second or even third children, with little success, reflecting attitudes in much of east Asia where birth rates have fallen precipitously. In China, the expense of raising children in cities is often cited as a cause.

China has long been the world’s most populous nation, but is expected to soon be overtaken by India, if it has not already. Estimates put India’s population at more than 1.4 billion and continuing to grow.

The last time China is believed to have recorded a population decline was during the Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s, under then-leader Mao Zedong’s disastrous drive for collective farming and industrialization that produced a massive famine killing tens of millions of people.

Yi Fuxian, an expert on Chinese population trends at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tweeted that the data reflected how China’s population began to decline nine to 10 years earlier than projections by Chinese officials and the United Nations.

That means that China’s “real demographic crisis is beyond imagination and that all of China’s past … policies were based on faulty demographic data,” Yi wrote.

“China’s demographic and economic outlook is much bleaker than expected,” he added, predicting that China would have to take a less combative tone internationally and improve is relations with the West.

China’s statistics bureau said the working-age population between 16 and 59 years old totaled 875.56 million, accounting for 62.0% of the national population, while those aged 65 and older totaled 209.78 million, accounting for 14.9% of the total.

The statistics also showed increasing urbanization in a country that traditionally had been largely rural. Over 2022, the permanent urban population increased by 6.46 million to reach 920.71 million, or 65.22%, while the rural population fell by 7.31 million.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the population figures have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak that was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan before spreading around the world. China has been accused by some specialists of underreporting deaths from the virus by blaming them on underlying conditions, but no estimates of the actual number have been published.

The United Nations estimated last year that the world’s population reached 8 billion on Nov. 15 and that India will replace China as the world’s most populous nation in 2023.

In a report released on World Population Day, the U.N. also said global population growth fell below 1% in 2020 for the first time since 1950.

Also Tuesday, the bureau released data showing China’s economic growth fell to its second-lowest level in at least four decades last year under pressure from anti-virus controls and a real estate slump.

The world’s No. 2 economy grew by 3% in 2022, less than half of the previous year’s 8.1%, the data showed.

That was the second-lowest annual rate since at least the 1970s, after the drop to 2.4% in 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, although activity is reviving after restrictions that kept millions of people at home and sparked protests were lifted.