What Is Worth Noting Behind China's 1.41 Billion Population?


The article is translated from the ” Sanlian Life Weekly ” which has a circulation of 820,000.

On May 11, China announced the seventh census data, with a total population of 1,411.78 million, and an average annual growth rate of 0.53%. Data show that China’s population has continued to maintain a low-speed growth trend for ten years, which is 0.04 percentage points lower than the average annual growth rate of 0.57% from 2000 to 2010.

In recent years, issues related to the declining birthrate and aging of China’s population have attracted continuous attention. Sanlian Life Weekly interviewed Huang Wenzheng, a invited senior researcher of the China and Globalization Think Tank and co-founder of the website “Population and Future”. Huang Wenzheng said that the total census population reached 1.4 billion, which is basically in line with the number of births announced by the official government each year. This verifies that the actual fertility rate over the past decade is not as low as the sample survey suggests, but it is already very low. After the total population reaches 1.4 billion, it is particularly important to note that the data in recent years shows that the birth population has dropped sharply, from 17.86 million in 2016 to 14.65 million in 2019, and a further drop to 12 million in 2020. According to this trend, China’s population will soon lead to the “inflection point” of negative population growth.

Reporter | Ziyi Huang

China's population hits record high

Sanlian Life Weekly: According to the latest results of the seventh census, China’s total population is 1,411.78 million. What do you think of this data?

Huang Wenzheng: The total census population of 1.4 billion is basically consistent with the number of births officially announced each year. This verifies that the actual fertility rate over the past decade is not as low as the sample survey suggests, but it is already very low. In terms of the actual impact on the economy and society, whether the total population exceeds or is less than 1.4 billion is not particularly meaningful. For example, there was speculation before that the total population was only 1.38 billion, but now it is found to be 1.41 billion. This does not mean that 30 million people suddenly appeared. In fact, these people have always lived among us, but we have calculated the total number to be less.

China's population - People's Vision
China's population - People's Vision

Sanlian Life Weekly : In addition to the total population, what other points do you think are worth paying attention to in the seventh census data?

Wenzheng Huang : I am more worried that the total population of more than 1.4 billion will dilute people’s feelings about the ultra-low fertility rate, so that many people do not realize the urgency of vigorously encouraging the fertility rate.

Because judging from the 2020 birth data sporadically released in various places, the birth population in 2020 will drop by about 15%. If the 14.65 million born in 2019 is to be believed, that means there is a good chance that fewer than 13 million will be born in 2020. The actual data released by the “Seven Census” also shows that the birth population in 2020 is only 12 million, and the total fertility rate of women of childbearing age in China in 2020 is 1.3, which is at a very low fertility level. These are the ones that deserve our special attention.

China's population - Stills of Shengmen
China's population - Stills of Shengmen

Population "inflection point" is approaching?

Sanlian Life Weekly: Compared with the total population of 1.41 billion, why are the birth population and total fertility rate more worthy of attention?

Wenzheng Huang : Because we have predicted based on these data before, the “inflection point” of China’s negative population growth will probably appear between 2023 and 2025. However, these judgments are based on the demographic data of the “Six Census” in 2010 and the birth population data in recent years, and do not take into account the impact of the COVID-19.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2019, there were 14.65 million births and 9.98 million deaths in China. The birth population in China has been decreasing year by year since 2016, reaching 17.86 million, 17.23 million, 15.23 million, and 14.65 million respectively, and will be 12 million by 2020. Due to the end of the second-child birth accumulation effect and the reduction in the number of women of childbearing age, this downward trend will continue. Besides, the number of deaths will increase year by year. Therefore, China’s population has a high probability of entering negative growth during the “14th Five-Year Plan” period.

China's population - 摄图网
China's population - 摄图网

This is very obvious in major cities. Before the release of this data, we have counted the birth population of major cities in 2020, and the birth population in many places is decreasing. Taking Beijing as an example, the total number of births in Beijing in 2020 will be 100,400, a decrease of about 24.3% compared with 2019. While the number of deaths will be 97,600, with the natural growth rate of the registered population close to zero. There are also Guangzhou, Wenzhou, Hefei and other places, compared with the same period in 2019, the decline range is between 9% and 32.6%. Combined with factors such as the weakening of the second-child accumulation and the reduction in the number of women of childbearing age, there is no suspense in itself that the national birth population will drop significantly in 2020 compared with 2019.

In addition, the outbreak could lead to a short-term fertility slump followed by a compensation period, which could advance this inflection point and cause the inflection point to swing tug-of-war over a period of several years. It’s down one year, up slightly the next year, and then down again. But in the long run, China’s population will enter negative growth, and the birth population will collapse.

Sanlian Life Weekly : Why do you say this will be a “collapse”?

Wenzheng Huang : Because first of all, the number of women of childbearing age is shrinking rapidly. The women of childbearing age are the potential mothers. In recent years, the number of women of childbearing age in China has decreased by an average of about 5 million per year. For example, in 2019, the number of women of childbearing age aged 15-49 decreased by more than 5 million compared with 2018, of which the number of that aged 20-29 at the peak of childbearing age decreased by more than 6 million. This shrinkage can be evidenced by the 7%-8% annual decrease in the number of newlyweds in recent years. At present, women between the ages of 22 and 35 are the main force of fertility. And in the next 10 years, women in this peak reproductive age group will also drop by more than 30%.

Second, the new generation is less willing to have children. Nowadays, many young people are reluctant to get married, and they are also DINK when they get married. This phenomenon is becoming more and more common. The reasons behind this are: 

  • the improvement of the education level of women of childbearing age
  • the high housing prices
  • the high cost of raising children

These all lead to women’s delay in giving birth, or even reducing the number of births. This decline will be very pronounced without a substantial increase in fertility rates.

Sanlian Life Weekly : The decline in fertility intentions has indeed been particularly evident in these years. On the other hand, wouldn’t the “universal two-child” policy be effective?

Wenzheng Huang : The “universal two-child” policy has had a certain effect, but it has an obvious accumulation effect, which has been slowly released over the years, resulting in a gradual weakening of the effect. Since 2016, the second child has accounted for a high proportion of the annual birth population. In 2017, the second child accounted for 51% of the birth population, surpassing the first child for the first time. By 2019, the number of second children has accounted for the number of births for three consecutive years. about half of .

However, various surveys on fertility intentions also show that less than 50% of families with one child are willing to have a second child. This means that after the age structure and fertility status gradually stabilize, the number of second children will only be half of the first child. That is to say, half of the second children born at present will be a temporary accumulation. If it weren’t for the release of the second child, the data in the past few years would not be as good as it is now, so the effect of “full second child” is still great.

Sanlian Life Weekly : The data released this time also shows that the total fertility rate of women of childbearing age in my country is about 1.3, which is already a very low fertility level. What does this mean?

Wenzheng Huang : The fertility rate of 1.3 still has the effect of “two children” in it. After deducting the stacking effect of the two-child policy, we estimate that the natural fertility rate is only about 1.1. If the natural fertility rate (that is, after deducting the accumulation rebound) has been around 1.1, well below the replacement level of 2.1, then the birth population may be halved in a generation about 25 to 30 years. That is to say, the time of three generations will be reduced by 7/8. If this trend does not change, it can be called a collapse.

In fact, the fertility rate in the whole of East Asia is very low now, and they are all facing this problem. South Korea, China Hong Kong, China Taiwan, Singapore are all low, except Japan is slightly better, about 1.4.

China's population - Stills of Jin Zhiying Born in 1982
China's population - Stills of Jin Zhiying Born in 1982

But I always feel that the future problems of mainland China may be more serious than theirs. Why? Because many of us have taken “only one child” as a normal, default choice. Only when you have a strong reason, you will have a second child. Previously, the National Health Commission had conducted a national fertility status survey and found that only 20%-30% of the people who were willing to have a second child after giving birth to one child. In countries such as Japan, about 80% of people who have had one child will have a second child, and 40% will even have a third child.

This has caused our entire parenting model to become very “chicken baby”. Everyone does not want the only child they have to lose at the starting line. So in a sense, the cost of raising a single child has also been pushed up and the parenting model has become very extravagant. Then, the whole society has gradually turned towards a kind of “involution” , which in turn further discourages young people from having children.

China's population - Stills of Xiao Shede
China's population - Stills of Xiao Shede

Population Significance

Sanlian Life Weekly : After the “Seven Census” population data is released, how do you judge the direction of China’s population in the next 10 years or even further?

Wenzheng Huang : China’s future population will soon enter the “inflection point” of negative growth. But if basing on the data from the last few censuses, the decline in population over the next decade will moderate, possibly entering a plateau.

First, the number of women of childbearing age has declined very rapidly in recent years. In the next 10-15 years, the number of these potential mothers will basically stabilize, and may even increase slightly.

Second, first-child birth rates are now very low, and part of this may be the result of delayed childbearing. For example, many women of childbearing age who have received good higher education and work in big cities will delay marriage and childbirth. This is called the “progress effect” in demography, so the fertility rate may rebound a little later. But it is worth noting that the “progress effect” also has a huge impact on the fertility rate. After many people postpone their marriage, they will choose to have fewer children. For example, if they originally planned to have two or three children, they will only have one at most after the delay. Therefore, China’s birth population will show a decline in the next 10 years, but there may be some fluctuations other than policy factors.

We know that, on average, a couple must have at least two children before the population of this society can reach the “replacement level”. That is, to maintain a basic population balance, ensuring that the number of children is equal to that of their parents. However, according to China’s sex ratio at birth and female survival rate, China’s replacement level requires a fertility rate of around 2.2. That is, it takes an average of 2.2 children per woman to keep the population from declining.

China's population - Stills of Anjia
China's population - Stills of Anjia

Sanlian Life Weekly : From a policy perspective, what adjustments should we make?

Wenzheng Huang : First of all, fertility should be fully liberalized as soon as possible. We believe that after the release of the seventh census data, comprehensive liberalization should be possible this year, but full liberalization alone may not reverse this downward trend. Because as I said earlier, very few people in China are willing to have three children. And even those who can give birth and are willing to give birth may have already given birth. Except for certain regions and industries, they will basically not be punished now. Therefore, even if it is fully liberalized, the number of births that can be increased is limited.

Therefore, we should not only liberalize comprehensively, but also encourage fertility. The purpose of comprehensive liberalization is to encourage fertility as soon as possible and vigorously in the future. Introducing measures to encourage fertility, many countries are doing like:

  • large-scale construction of inclusive kindergartens and nurseries
  • shortening the school system from primary school to high school to 10 years
  • linking pensions with the number of children born
  • linking the number of children born with the land transfer fee when purchasing a house,etc.

Encouraging fertility is really not just a simple talk, it takes a lot of effort to do it, which depends on the height of the policy. If the policy is raised to a perspective that is more important than short-term economic development and is related to the future of the country, and is on a par with policies such as environmental protection and poverty alleviation, there will definitely be ways. And there are always more ways than difficulties. It takes a lot of effort for us to raise it further to the replacement level. This is high, depends on the choice of policy, depends on how serious we have to realize the problem.

Sanlian Life Weekly : But there are some voices saying, wouldn’t it be better if China’s population is smaller? Is it necessary to maintain such a large population size?

Wenzheng Huang : This is a wrong view. In the past, we were used to treating population as a burden, thinking that a country with fewer population would be richer. But in fact, the scale benefit of population is very huge, and we have not fully realized it. The growth of China’s national strength and the unique Chinese development model are largely based on China’s huge population base. Why is it not fully recognized? There are many factors here. We have always been an agricultural country before, and seeing that Europe and the United States are developed industrial countries, they once developed better than us. So we may think that it is better for us to have a smaller population. This comparison is not really meaningful because no other variables are controlled for.

With a large population and a large market, the agglomeration effect of a large number of people has spawned a lot of development and rapid iteration of science and technology in recent years, as well as various convenient, fast and low-cost services, all of us are enjoying these. It’s just that we don’t usually realize that we are all enjoying various benefits and innovations brought about by the scale of China’s 1.4 billion people.

In the past, some people would think that as China’s population decreases, the per capita GDP will increase, and the per capita will become richer. This is the complete opposite. Empirical studies have found the opposite. Regions with lower fertility rates have lower long-term growth rates of per capita GDP. For example, the economy of Northeast China is not very prosperous in recent years. From 1980 to 2019, the proportion of Northeast China’s population has dropped from 9.01% to 7.71%, while the per capita GDP of Northeast China has been 39% higher than that of the whole country in 1980. For 2019, it was 34.1% lower than the national level. In other words, the population is relatively reduced, but the per capita GDP is lower.

China's population - Stills of Piano of Steel
China's population - Stills of Piano of Steel

Sanlian Life Weekly : China’s population is also facing the problem of aging, for example, it is obvious in the Northeast. The data released this time shows that my country’s population aged 60 and above exceeds 260 million, accounting for 18.70% of the total population, and the degree of aging is further deepened. But you have always emphasized that “low birthrate” is the biggest crisis. Why?

Wenzheng Huang : Aging is actually a result of “low birthrate”. It is because there are fewer children that there are relatively more elderly people. If there are enough children, the problem of aging will not be so bad.

China's population - Stills of The Old Ones
China's population - Stills of The Old Ones

So really I think the bigger crisis is the collapse of the population. The impact of aging on the entire social population may account for 20% or 30% of the total population. But in the long run, the “low birthrate” shrinkage of the population has no bottom, and may be 5 times or 10 times the impact. If the whole society and the country are to be delayed, the fertility rate must at least be raised to the replacement level.

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