China announces population decline for second year in a row
China’s recent population data release reveals that the country’s population has dipped for the second year in a row. University of Michigan social demographer Yun Zhou and Mary Gallagher, an expert in Chinese politics, discuss what’s behind the decline and what it could mean for China’s economy.
Zhou is an assistant professor of sociology and Chinese studies, and a member of the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research. Gallagher is the director of the International Institute, professor of political science and a member of the Center for Political Studies.
Can you give an overview of China’s population data release?
Zhou: This is indeed the second year that we see a population decline in China. If we break down the numbers, this decline is driven by two parts. On one hand, we again see a drop in the number of births, with about 0.54 million fewer births than the previous year.
On the other hand, the decline is also driven by an increase in the number of deaths. China’s official data reported a very slight increase in mortality rate, but that begs the question: To what extent the reported increase in deaths has faithfully and accurately captured China’s death tolls from COVID-19. Some researchers have estimated over 1 million excess deaths between December 2022 and January 2023 alone, which is by no means on the same scale as the official report that we have seen from China.
I do want to add that such persistent fertility decline is not unique to China. As we have seen across a range of low fertility countries in East Asia and Southern Europe, fertility decline is often very, very difficult to reverse. Once a population is on the trajectory of fertility decline, oftentimes that is the trend that we’re going to see for years to come.
What causes a decline in fertility rate?
Zhou: First, the more mechanical, mathematical part of the answer is that as fertility declines, fewer babies are born. When those babies grow up, it means fewer number of childbearing-aged adults. So even if this new cohort of childbearing-aged adults are having children at the same rate as their previous cohorts, there is still going to be a lower number of births.
But there is a second, normative part to fertility decline as well: Alongside decline in births are changes in people’s ideas about family: what does it mean to have an “ideal” family; what is an “ideal” number of children one should have. Norms begin to change and the “smaller family” ideal begins to take stronger hold. And norms are very sticky.
When we look at China’s fertility decline, we, too, see these two forces both at play.
Can you expand a little more about societal impacts on China’s fertility rate?
Gallagher: There are three different reasons for why China’s fertility rate is so low. I think they’re all happening at the same time. China’s economic development has been very rapid and social transformation has occurred really quickly. With that, people’s ideas about work and marriage have changed. This is kind of a global trend: as you become richer, your fertility rate goes down. But then there’s what Yun was just talking about, the stickiness of China’s one-child policy with people getting used to very small families and a strong preference for a single child that they can focus their energies on.
Workplace policies play a role as well. Women in China participate in the labor force at pretty high rates. Even now, there’s a very strong fear among women that if they were to have more than one child, they would be even more discriminated against. There’s lots of data that show that they are discriminated against if they have multiple children. So there’s the kind of stickiness of the one-child policy, which is unique to China.
Then the third one, which is the one I’m most interested in right now, but is very hard to study from afar, is the idea that China’s youth are pessimistic about the future in a very specific way, and therefore are making decisions about not having children for that reason.
Globally, we see that among youth the fertility rate in many countries is going down, not because of economic development, but because of this fear for the future. In most Western countries, when young people talk about this pessimism, they tend to relate it to climate change.
I think for China, it’s a more specific reaction to the tightening of political control in the country. It’s a reaction to the way in which China’s relations with many countries including the United States have really soured over the last few years. It may also be the direction that the country is going in. It’s no longer on this kind of rapid growth path. The growth rate has been slowing. The real estate market is in recession.
This is a hard reason to pick apart: Is this a unique China story or is China just exhibiting the same thing that we are seeing globally?
What impacts will a decline in population have on China’s economy and labor force?
Gallagher: There are a number of different reasons about why people are concerned about the decline in population. One concern is just that as the whole population shrinks, China’s productivity will go down. But I don’t think that’s a foregone conclusion. I think there are ways in which an aging population can still be quite productive, but it requires a workforce that’s highly trained. It requires a focus on high-level services, such as health care and financial services, on capital-intensive manufacturing. It will require a shift away from the way China boomed into the way China can grow in the longer run.
In some ways for policymakers in China, this should be a moment of opportunity to double down on the direction that the country already wants to go in, which is not to be reliant on labor intensive manufacturing, which tends to employ very young people, but rather services and technologically intensive manufacturing that can employ people well into middle and older ages. So that’s where China really needs to focus.
The best advice that the Chinese government has been given is to stop trying to force women to have more children and to invest in the health and the skill set of its working population, no matter how old they are. I think the Chinese government has done that rather poorly, particularly for people in rural areas, many of whom have worked for decades in cities, but have been really closed out of educational opportunities and upskilling opportunities.
The other concern related to the health of the economy and the health of the government’s finances is not so much the decline of the population, but the way in which the population is aging and whether or not the social welfare system in China is sustainable, with many, many fewer people in the working population.
What is the subtext of concern about population and fertility decline?
Zhou: When we look at the United States and the European contexts, concerns for a population decline among the white population often are a dog whistle for xenophobic and racist sentiments. In a way, a similar dynamic plays out in the Chinese context, that concerns for population become the way through which other deeply problematic social and political agendas get promoted. Concerns about China’s drop in births become the vehicle through which a certain kind of deeply gendered and deeply patriarchal family ideal gets articulated. Through incentivizing births, policies re-entrench a gender ideal that expects women to be the wives and the mothers who “care for the old and nurture the young.”
Whether an aging population really truly would mean declining productivity is not a foregone conclusion at all. It depends on the structure of the industry, it depends on the skill set of the workforce. So oftentimes by framing low fertility as a crisis of sorts for the nation, it is really these other beliefs and other agendas that are getting articulated through such problematization of population decline.
How do attitudes about population differ across China’s provinces?
Zhou: We tend to think of China as monolithic, but there are important regional variations in fertility, mortality, and in age and sex compositions within China. Looking at provincial breakdown in population data from the last several years, overall, births are still higher in provinces that are poorer, have a higher percentage of ethnic minorities, and/or have a higher percentage of rural population.
As we think about China’s future, it is important to keep in mind the elements of regional variations and social inequality that are reflected in China’s population dynamics. For example, what are or will continue to be the labor-sending provinces, where are these migrant workers going, and whether migrant workers can access social welfare in places where they live and work. These provincial variations in demographics within China would have lasting and profound implications for China’s social inequality patterns and Xi’s “Common Prosperity” agenda.