China reports a population decline for the first time in decades

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By Euronews  with AP
A girl wearing a face mask rides on a man's shoulders as they walk along a tourist shopping street in Beijing, 7 October 2022
A girl wearing a face mask rides on a man's shoulders as they walk along a tourist shopping street in Beijing, 7 October 2022   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

China has announced its first population decline in decades, as the world's most populous nation ages and its birthrate plunges.

The negative trend is expected to cause new challenges for the slowing economy amid rising frictions with Europe, the US and Beijing's Asian neighbours.

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 last year, 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 launched 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.

China's population has begun to decline 9-10 years earlier than Chinese officials predicted and the United Nation projected, said Yi Fuxian, a demographer and expert on Chinese population trends at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

That means that China's "real demographic crisis is beyond imagination and that all of China's past economic, social, defense, and foreign policies were based on faulty demographic data," Yi told The Associated Press.

Yi said that, based on his own research, China's population has actually been declining since 2018, showing the population crisis is "much more severe" than previously thought. China now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, comparable only to Taiwan and South Korea, he added.

China's looming economic crisis will be worse than Japan's, where years of low growth have been blamed in part on a shrinking population, Yi said.

"China has become older before it has become rich," Yi said.

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.