Demographer: China’s Population May Have Dropped in 2021

TOPSHOT - People (C) walk through a market crowded with shoppers in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong on February 4, 2018, ahead of the coming Lunar New Year.
ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images

The Chinese government has grown concerned about falling birth rates and demographic decline over the past few years, but according to independent demographer He Yafu, China may have already encountered negative population growth this year.

“If the number of newborns is near the lower limit of the prediction, that means the population will register negative growth,” He wrote on China’s Weixin social media platform in a post that was censored for violating unspecified “regulations.”

He was referring to estimates that Chinese women would give birth to between 9.5 and 10.5 million babies by the end of 2021. Since China experiences an average of 10 million deaths per year, He reasoned the number of births might fail to offset the number of deaths, resulting in zero or negative population growth.

Bloomberg News noted He’s methodology relies on collating reports from local officials rather than accepting national statistics prepared in Beijing, which could be one reason his warning about negative population growth ran into trouble with censors. 

He appears to prefer harvesting data that probably was not altered by local or national officials to conceal the extent of China’s demographic decline. For example, he projected a 17.9 percent birth rate decline in the major city of Shandong by looking at the number of hearing tests administered to newborns.

Local reports from Chinese provinces collected by He showed some of them have seen double-digit declines in birth rates for up to four consecutive years. 

He Yafu has been sounding alarms about demographic decline for much of 2021, and his work has been approvingly quoted by Chinese state media. The Global Times cited him as an expert analyst in a May report about China heading for the world’s lowest fertility rate:

He Yafu, an independent demographer, told the Global Times on Tuesday that the total fertility rate of 1.3 contains the disappearing effect of the second-child policy China introduced in 2016, and leaving out the effect, the total fertility rate could only stand at around 1.1.

India maintained a fertility rate of around 2.3, which indicated that its population may surpass China’s by 2023 or 2024, He said, earlier than the latest UN prediction in 2019 that this would happen by 2027. Some Chinese demographers also predicted that India may overtake China in population as early as 2022. 

The Wall Street Journal in July quoted He warning that China’s switch to a “three-child policy” would not be enough to reverse the crumbling demographics inflicted by decades of the hideous “one-child policy,” imposed back when overpopulation was China’s great concern.

“All remaining penalties for violating birth limits should be removed in the revision to provide a legal framework to encourage births,” He advised.

“It’s a superfluous move to have a three-child policy,” He elaborated to the Times of London. “Even when all restrictions are removed, few people would have the fourth child or the fifth child. Even with a three-child policy, not many people will have three children if there is not enough policy support.”

He was touching on a point often overlooked in demographic discussions: since many people in any given society will never have children, achieving an average birth rate of 2+ for population stability or 3+ for energetic growth means a significant number of families must have four or more children. Merely allowing families to have three children is not enough to reverse a downward demographic spiral.

Chinese officials are willing to admit they have a big problem with demographics, but they are reluctant to concede the ruthless population control measures of the past 40 years were a mistake, and even more reluctant to admit their demographic decline might pose a severe risk to the Chinese economy in the near future.

“Data showed a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman for 2020 alone, on par with ageing societies like Japan and Italy. The shrill alarm for China’s policymakers is that the world’s second-biggest economy may already be in irreversible population decline without having first accumulated the household wealth of G7 nations,” Reuters noted in May, when the lowest Chinese birth rates since the 1950s were recorded.

Analysts predicted in May that China’s population would peak sometime around 2030. If He’s latest work is correct, the peak may have arrived a decade ahead of schedule.

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