China population: Tumbling regional birth rates signal scale of country's ageing crisis

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Despite the delayed publication of national population data, a slew of local birth statistics in China has hinted at a growing population crisis in the world’s most populous country.

Births are steadily falling in China and experts say they will only shrink further, putting pressure on Beijing’s lofty development goals, “unless miraculous achievements” are made in increasing the number of newborns in the future.

Annual population and birth figures for 2020 were not released as part of a series of economic indicators last month, mainly because China finished a once-in-a-decade population census at the end of last year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The bureau said preliminary results of the census were expected to be published in April.

But over the course of January, some Chinese provinces and cities have disclosed their own birth data through government and state media reports – and in some cases birth rates declined more than 30 per cent in 2020 from a year earlier.

In the city of Guangzhou, the provincial capital of southern economic powerhouse Guangdong, the number of newborn babies fell to the lowest level in nearly a decade, according to a report in the state-run Guangzhou Daily.

Some 195,500 babies were born in Guangzhou, down about 17 per cent from 2019, and 33 per cent below 2017, the report said. It added that the declining trend in the city broadly mirrored the situation for the whole province, which in 2019 recorded 1.43 million newborns – the most births among all provinces.

In Ningxia Hui autonomous region, a landlocked area in China’s northwest home to the Hui ethnic minority, the number of newborns was slightly above 80,000 last year, a 16 per cent fall from 2019, official data showed.

The capital Yinchuan recorded roughly 24,400 new babies, down by 11.9 per cent from 2019, according to a government report.

In eastern China, a number of thriving cities with large inflows of migrants all showed drastic falls in newborns last year. Hefei, the provincial capital of Anhui province, reported 79,300 newborns, down 23 per cent from a year earlier, a report from the city government said.

The cities of Wenzhou and Taizhou, both under the jurisdiction of Zhejiang province – one of China’s wealthiest – saw newborns fall by 19 per cent and 33 per cent respectively last year, according to government reports.

“While we cannot draw a nationwide conclusion based on the declining births in those regions, we believe that there is no doubt that the national births will fall significantly in 2020 from 2019, considering the dwindling number of women of childbearing age and other factors,” said Huang Wenzhen, a senior researcher from the Centre for China and Globalisation, a government-backed think tank.

“We can say that even though the number of births in 2020 might be the lowest in recent decades, it is likely to be the highest in the next few decades, unless miraculous achievements were made via encouraging births in the future.”

This is not so far from the central government’s own estimates. Over the next five years, China’s total population will enter the range of zero growth, meaning the annual gap between births and deaths will shrink to only 1 million, even though the total population will remain above 1.4 billion, according to the China Population and Development Research Centre, an official think tank.

It estimated that India could overtake China as the world’s most populated country in 2027.

Chinese mothers gave birth to 14.65 million babies in 2019 , the lowest level since 1961.

China is not the only east Asian country suffering from declining births and an ageing population. Last year, South Korea’s population dropped for the first time on record. Russia’s population also shrank by 500,000 people in 2020, the largest decline in 15 years.

Rapidly ageing populations have put pressure on governments in Asia, as the potential for growth eases amid shrinking labour supply and the burden of caring for the elderly increases.

In theory, countries can offset the impact by improving labour productivity and capital investment, but that is “a gravity defying act,” said economists from French bank Natixis in a note in December.

“With fewer workers and an increased elderly population requiring more savings to sustain spending in retirement, greater pressure on public finances is expected,” the bank said. “As such, the more prepared an economy can be while still youthful, the more likely it is to age gracefully.

“With lower potential output, assuming all else is equal, the goal to rapidly grow GDP per capita or the standard of living, is more difficult. Some Asian economies, such as China and Thailand, will still be in the ‘middle income trap’ when they rapidly age.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.