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Why China’s population fell for the first time in decades: NPR

A man pulls a child past a Lunar New Year decoration on display in Qianmen Pedestrian Shopping Street, a popular tourist spot in Beijing, on Tuesday.

Andy Wong/AP


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Andy Wong/AP


A man pulls a child past a Lunar New Year decoration on display in Qianmen Pedestrian Shopping Street, a popular tourist spot in Beijing, on Tuesday.

Andy Wong/AP

China has recorded its first population decline in decades in what some experts have called a “radical change” for a country determined to grow its economy and raise its birth rate.

According to data released Tuesday by the National Bureau of Statistics of Chinamainland China’s population was 1.411 billion at the end of 2022, a decrease of 850,000 from the previous year.

Stuart Gietel-Basten, Professor of Social Sciences at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Khalifa University Dubai, told NPR morning edition that the shrinkage could complicate China’s plans for continued economic expansion.

“The era of rapid growth, double-digit growth, cheap labor, a younger workforce – that era is now truly over,” Gietel-Basten said. .

Long the most populous country in the world, China could soon see its population overtaken by the growing India. In 2022, according to UN dataIndia had a population of 1.4066 billion, second only to China’s 1.4485 billion

It is believed that the last time China saw its population plummet was during a tumultuous period known as the Great Leap Forward which began in the late 1950s.

China’s infamous one-child policy has limited births for decades

China’s fertility rates were already declining in the 1970s, and in 1980 the Chinese government officially instituted the controversial one-child policy, legally preventing families from having more than one baby. The policy was intended to further limit China’s population growth and spur an economic boom.

Ultimately, this resulted in low fertility rates and significant population aging. Last year, China recorded more deaths than births, according to government data released this week. Officials said 10.41 million people died while 9.56 million were born.

In 2015, China ended the one-child policy and began allowing married couples to have two children. It expanded the allowance again in 2021, allowing up to three children.

Yun Zhou, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, told NPR that recent attempts by China to reverse course and encourage families to have more children have not worked.

“From my own research, what I saw was that women often resisted and often prioritized their paid employment and prioritized their pursuit of individualistic ideals over this sustained incitement,” Zhou said.

“But since China is an authoritarian country, it remains to be seen how far and how far the state will actually go in trying to encourage births.”

Zhou also noted that although the Chinese government has encouraged heterosexual married couples to have more children, LGBTQ people and unmarried people are often omitted official policies.

The COVID pandemic has also put a strain on China’s fertility rate

After COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China, the resulting lockdowns across the world have caused widespread economic suffering and social isolation.

This was particularly true in China, the second economywhere, in some cases, people have been confined to their homes for days or even weeks as strict pandemic containment measures have been instituted to slow the spread of the virus.

Gietel-Basten said China has had to grapple with economic insecurity caused by the pandemic as well as “the challenges of working from home and having a family in these difficult circumstances, which has been particularly difficult in China.”

But he added that China’s shrinking population does not necessarily mean the country will see its economic growth decline.

The government has already invested in services for its aging population, Gietel-Basten noted, and it will try to increase the productivity of the many workers it still has.

“There really are still a lot of levers that can be pulled in China,” he said.

Zhou said if China’s population continues to decline and its economy slows, it could cause the country and its leaders to see China’s place in the world differently. The government can project an “even more nationalist imaginary” or, on the contrary, place a renewed emphasis on social stability, she suggested.

“It’s really an open question and it really remains to be seen how the Chinese Communist Party will react,” she said. “Although it has been a long time coming, we are on the cusp of a sea change.”

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