China's population is set to get smaller for the first time since the great famine struck 60 years ago. Why? And how will this affect the rest of the world?
China accounts for more than one-sixth of the world's population, yet after four extraordinary decades in which the country’s population has swelled from 660 million to 1.4 billion, its population is on track to turn down this year, for the first time since the great famine of 1959-1961.
According to the latest figures from China's National Bureau of Statistics, China's population grew from 1.41212 billion to just 1.41260 billion in 2021 – a record low increase of just 480,000, a mere fraction of the annual growth of eight million or so common a decade ago.
While a reluctance to have children in the face of strict anti-Covid measures might have contributed to the slowdown in births, it has been coming for years.
China's total fertility rate (births per woman) was 2.6 in the late 1980s – well above the 2.1 needed to replace deaths. It has been between 1.6 and 1.7 since 1994, and slipped to 1.3 in 2020 and just 1.15 in 2021.
By way of comparison, in Australia and the United States the total fertility rate is 1.6 births per woman. In ageing Japan it is 1.3.
This has happened despite China abandoning its one-child policy in 2016 and introducing a three-child policy, backed by tax and other incentives, last year.
Theories differ about why Chinese women remain reluctant to have children in the face of state incentives. One possibility is that the population has become used to small families. Another involves the rising cost of living, while others think it might be to do with the increasing marriage age, which delays births and dampens the desire to have children.
In addition, China has fewer women of child-bearing age than might be expected. Limited to having only one child since 1980, many couples opted for a boy, lifting the sex at birth ratio from 106 boys for every 100 girls (the ratio in most of the rest of the world) to 120, and in some provinces to 130.