China’s population witnessed a decline for the second consecutive year in 2023, shedding light on deepening demographic worries within the world’s second-largest economy. The announcement, made by officials, underscores the impact of record-low births and a surge in COVID-19 fatalities, exacerbating concerns about the nation’s demographic trajectory.
According to the National Statistics Bureau, the total population of mainland China stood at 1.409 billion at the end of 2023, marking a decline of over 2 million from the previous year. This follows a drop of 850,000 individuals from 2021 to 2022, marking China’s first population decline in six decades.
The dwindling birth rate has emerged as a critical factor contributing to the population downturn, with approximately 9 million newborns recorded last year — a birthrate of 6.39 per thousand, the lowest since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Young people, grappling with concerns such as work-life balance, soaring living costs, and entrenched gender roles, have expressed reluctance to start families, contributing to the sustained decline in births.
In parallel, the nation faced a stark rise in deaths, surpassing 11 million — the highest since 1974, during the Cultural Revolution era. An analysis revealed nearly 2 million excess deaths in early 2023, following the abrupt relaxation of “zero-Covid” restrictions, which exposed the population to the virus.
Experts attribute the population decline to the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupting social and economic norms. Su Yue, principal economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit in Shanghai, anticipates a potential rebound in births in 2024, driven partly by delayed family planning decisions amid pandemic-related disruptions.
China’s shrinking and aging population poses broader implications for its economic trajectory as the nation strives to maintain its position as a global economic powerhouse. Despite recording a 5.2% economic growth in 2023, in line with government targets, concerns persist about the nation’s ability to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy.
Efforts to boost the birth rate have been a focal point for policymakers, prompting initiatives to relax stringent family planning policies and incentivize childbirth. President Xi Jinping has underscored the importance of fostering a culture supportive of marriage and child-rearing, urging women to play a pivotal role in shaping family dynamics.
However, public response to these initiatives has been tepid, with dwindling birth rates and marriage rates reflecting broader societal trends. Economic anxieties, compounded by challenges such as youth unemployment and caregiving responsibilities, have tempered enthusiasm for starting families among young Chinese.
As China grapples with demographic shifts, concerns about an aging population and labor shortages loom large. Efforts to bolster the “silver economy” aim to capitalize on opportunities presented by an aging population, fostering innovation and economic growth in sectors catering to older demographics.
Amid discussions about the implications of China’s population decline, social media reactions have been mixed, reflecting a nuanced perspective on the demographic shifts reshaping the nation’s social and economic landscape. While some welcome the prospect of reduced competition and eased societal pressures, others raise concerns about the broader implications of a declining population for China’s future trajectory.
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