China Can No Longer Deny Its Shrinking Population
An official acknowledgement of population decline may herald new measures to encourage families.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China records negative population growth for the first time in decades, the government’s new COVID-19 death toll remains a serious underestimate, and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He speaks at the World Economic Forum.
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Official Data Shows Population Decline
This week, China officially recorded a slight population decline for the first time since the Great Famine, between 1959 and 1961. The statistics have prompted concern and a sense of despair in a country already experiencing a looming economic crisis, a massive COVID-19 wave, and geopolitical isolation.
Population decline in China has been on the way for years; it’s likely that the actual decrease began a couple of years ago and could be sharper than the official figures let on. Chinese population data is unreliable in part because governments in rural areas have incentives to overreport numbers to get more aid. Those in urban areas tend to underreport since official policy is to control the size of the population in the big cities.
Still, as recently as 2019, China predicted that negative population growth wouldn’t begin until 2029. It looked as if the country might record a decline in 2021, when the 2020 figures were released, but official data showed a slight increase. Marriage rates have fallen for eight consecutive years, and birthrates have followed suit—although not yet to the same degree. In 2021, China recorded just 7.63 million marriage registrations, compared with 13.47 million in 2013.
What’s prompting Chinese to stay away from getting married and having children? In part, it’s simply cost. Raising kids in China is expensive, especially to the standards of the urban upper-middle class. It costs more than in countries that also have more per capita wealth, such as Japan or the United States.
Reduced hope for the future may also play a role, especially given the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 2000s, there was a strong sense of economic growth and expanding political freedoms as tides that lifted all boats, but by the mid-2010s, Chinese society began to feel increasingly zero-sum. Younger generations felt their prospects dim. “We are the last generation” has become a popular slogan among young people and speaks powerfully to that insecurity.
Another key factor is also expanded choice and power for women in China, who increasingly have careers of their own and for whom marriage may seem like a bad bargain. That is a good thing. When given the opportunity, women around the world choose to have fewer children on average.
Furthermore, China’s one-child policy—involving forced sterilizations and financial penalties, which are still used as part of the campaign of genocide in Xinjiang—created a demographic gap earlier than the country could afford. There simply are not enough working-age people to support the number of old people. In the 2000s, demographers expressed a fear that China would get old before it got rich—and now it’s happening.
Other countries can supplement their workforce through immigration, but although China has significant internal migration, there is very little migration from outside the country. That’s because for immigrants in China, there is no meaningful path to permanent residency. For comparison, the U.S. foreign-born population is 48 million; in China, that figure in the 2020 census was around 1.4 million and included 585,000 people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan living in China.
The Chinese government’s official acknowledgement of population decline will likely prompt a raft of measures to encourage childbearing. This had already begun both at the national level and the local level, such as the $2,800 subsidy for couples having a third child in Shenzhen. (That would cover roughly 3 percent of the cost of raising that child.) The 2021 ban on private tutoring largely aimed to bring down the cost of child-rearing, but it only created a black market for the well-connected and deepened educational inequality.
The Chinese public would welcome steps to alleviate the costs of education and health care, but it’s likely that some of these measures will be coercive. Government coverage of the birthrate has often taken a patriarchal tone, including articles calling for women to leave the workplace and “return to their families.” The police and security services have singled out feminists for persecution in recent years.
As the political scientist Chenchen Zhang pointed out, the top reasons young people give for not having children are economic and social burdens, but the answer from government officials is more propaganda and patriarchal indoctrination.
One possible consequence of the government recognizing the crisis may be the introduction of a guest worker program, possibly targeted at attracting cheap labor from Southeast Asia. Of course, that policy wouldn’t offer laborers any path to residency. Given the scale of China’s population and the numbers required to make up for diminishing birthrates, it’s also unlikely to be more than a Band-Aid.
What We’re Following
“New” COVID-19 data. China finally raised its death toll since ditching a strict zero-COVID policy early last month, from a handful of cases to just under 60,000. However, that is still a vast underestimate of the real toll. A London-based firm estimates that China’s total COVID-related death toll is around 390,000. Meanwhile, doctors in China say they are still being told not to list COVID-19 on death certificates.
The delay in releasing these statistics signals the confusion caused inside the government by the sudden shift in COVID-19 policy. Chinese media outlets have slyly hinted at the real death toll, such as this retrospective of major figures who died “in recent weeks” without any mention of the cause. Outlets have turned to groups that publish regular obituaries for their members to estimate numbers: For example, the Chinese Academy of Engineering in Beijing saw roughly 13 times the number of member deaths last month compared with an ordinary December.
Protesters detained, months later. As expected, China has quietly rounded up some of the protesters from the zero-COVID demonstrations last November, concentrating on those who attended events in prominent locations such as Beijing and Shanghai and which directly targeted Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. Young women appear particular targets, perhaps highlighting the government’s fear of feminist movements. Shortly before her arrest, one detainee, , documented the harassment she had received since the protests.
Marvel back at the Chinese box office. After a three-year de facto ban on Marvel films in China, two movies—Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania—will be released in China in February. These openings are probably a sign of the slight softening of anti-U.S. policies both culturally and politically. Although neither film is getting a shot at the profitable Spring Festival box office during the week of Jan. 22, Avatar: The Way of Water got a very rare extension to run into a period reserved for domestic movies.
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Tech and Business
Liu He plays Davos Man. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He gave a speech to at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, designed to hit all the right notes: that China is reopening and will not go back and that foreign investment is welcome. One would have to be naive to take this message at face value after a decade of crackdowns on private business, xenophobic campaigns, and the CCP’s intrusion into arenas from technology to education.
China’s economic situation is just dire enough to demand temporary easing and lure investment. But the overall agenda of CCP control won’t disappear until Chinese President Xi Jinping does—and perhaps not even then. Liu’s speech seemed to go down pretty well, although he didn’t receive the rapturous reception that greeted Chinese leaders at Davos for years: This time, around one-quarter of the crowd reportedly left before the end.
Didi back in the game. The Chinese ride-hailing app Didi is the latest company to benefit from an easing of previous government controls as authorities try to breathe life back into the economy. Didi was restricted from signing up new users for 18 months after making political mistakes, such as listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Firms such as Didi and Alibaba are being released from the doghouse only after effectively capitulating to the CCP, making political changes demanded by the authorities and allowing the party to take a critical share of control.
Property investment down. Chinese real estate investment dropped by 10 percent year over year in 2022, marking the first decline since record-keeping began—along with the Chinese property boom—in 1999. Even more than overall economic slowdown or the employment crisis, a crumbling property sector is a critical threat to stability in China. Most middle-class wealth is invested in property, and I would expect the government to take steps to make foreign investment easier for a sector that now desperately needs money to stay afloat.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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