China’s population is falling. Why does that matter?

China's population is falling. Why does that matter?

China’s population is falling for the first time in over 60 years.

In 1961, China’s population was under 700 million and the country was gripped by a massive famine.

Now it has nearly 1.5 billion people. It’s the most populous country in the world and the second-biggest economy.

Why is its population falling and what will the consequences be?

The numbers

China’s population fell by 850,000 in 2022 according to official statistics. This was driven by both an unusually high rate of deaths and an unusually low rate of births.

Experts had been predicting a drop for some time. Last year, the Chinese Government declared China would soon enter an “era” of population decline.

United Nations projections suggest China’s population will fall by 109 million by 2050. India, which has a population of around 1.4 billion, is expected to overtake China later this year.

The ‘one-child’ policy

China’s low birth rates were at first a deliberate policy choice: from 1979 to 2016, China had a strict ‘one-child’ policy designed to slow its booming population.

But that policy has created a lopsided population: a large number of old people and fewer people of parenting age. It has also led to a gender skew – more men were born under the one child policy than women.

In recent years, the Government has tried to encourage people to have children, but high childcare costs have remained a barrier.

What does it mean?

A declining population is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, but it is generally associated with shrinking economic activity. In China’s case, that could have quite a significant domestic and international fallout.

A key issue is that China’s population is getting older at the same time as it is declining – China’s low birth rates have left it with an overrepresentation of older people.

That is a common problem in many wealthy countries, including Australia. Governments in these countries are expected to spend more on health and aged care as their populations age. Even in countries with strong health systems by international standards, like Australia, this is a cause of significant economic strain and a concern for policy experts.

In China, which has a relatively under-developed health system, the pressure could be even more significant. China also has a less comprehensive social welfare system than many wealthy countries, which leaves it poorly-positioned to help its citizens weather an economic crisis.

Global population

The world’s population recently passed 8 billion, and UN projections suggest it will approach 10 billion by 2050. The fastest-growing regions are Sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia, while several countries including Japan are already shrinking.

Some experts say projections of a rising global population are a key contribution to climate change, arguing more people leads to higher emissions.

Others dispute the link, pointing to the massive share of global emissions contributed by a small and wealthy share of the population.

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