On 11 May, the Chinese authorities will release the results of its seventh national population census. How badly have China’s birth rates fallen? The findings have the answer.
It is worth noting that the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) originally planned to release the results in early April only to delay it until mid-May, which has led to speculation.
China completed its census at the end of last year. It should not be difficult to collate the results in the internet era. That the authorities have not yet released the figures suggests that they have their “difficulties”.
On 27 April, an FTChinese article said that China was about to announce its first population decline since 1949. According to people familiar with the research, the latest census shows that China’s total population is less than 1.4 billion; in 2019, China’s population had exceeded 1.4 billion.
But some in China think that the delay in releasing the census findings is because the birth rate and population profile figures do not look good and this would have a major impact on the authorities’ family planning policy.
However, as of 29 April, the National Bureau of Statistics released a statement on its website saying that China’s population continued to grow in 2020, with the figures to be released in the seventh census report.
But some in China think that the delay in releasing the census findings is because the birth rate and population profile figures do not look good and this would have a major impact on the authorities’ family planning policy. Various agencies may have different ideas and need time to coordinate their responses, so that the census figures do not sour public opinion.
In China, population policies involve many agencies. Apart from the family planning and statistics departments, there is also the Ministry of Public Security in charge of household registration; the Ministry of Civil Affairs in charge of marriage, elderly care, and funerals; the All-China Women's Federation in charge of women and children’s rights; the National Health Commission in charge of healthcare; the Ministry of Education in charge of school management; and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security in charge of employment and social security. It would take time to seek the views of these agencies and coordinate a response.
Also, various local governments would be affected by the census results. Provinces such as Anhui and Hebei have recently stressed that they want to properly interpret the census results and handle the possible backlash.
According to NBS figures, China’s birth rate in 2017 was 17.25 million; in 2018, 15.32 million; and in 2019, 14.65 million.
Severe impact of China’s family planning policy
The real question is: how severe is the decline in birth rate? How will changes to the population makeup affect the economy and society? Is there a demographic crisis? Should China completely remove restrictions on having children?
According to NBS figures, China’s birth rate in 2017 was 17.25 million; in 2018, 15.32 million; and in 2019, 14.65 million. The NBS did not release birth rate figures for 2020, but figures from the Ministry of Public Security show 10.03 million births recorded. It can be seen that while the two-child policy was implemented in 2015, birth rates have fallen since 2017, to nearly 10 million in 2020.
This big drop in birth rate has led to widespread anxiety in China. Some feel that China is facing a demographic crisis, and there are growing calls to completely remove birth restrictions.
China started implementing its family planning policy in the 1970s; from the 1980s to 2011, it imposed a strict one-child policy on the urban population. Over the past 40 years, family planning persisted amid strong domestic and external pressures, preventing over 400 million births.
In November 2015, deputy director of the National Health and Family Planning Commission Wang Pei’an said that China’s family planning policy arose out of concerns about China’s burgeoning population. The authorities managed to strike a balance even though the policy was difficult to implement. Through their efforts, they succeeded in restricting the unbridled rise of the population and relieving the pressures on resources and the environment. This helped to improve the livelihoods of the people and the country’s pace of development.
Official and public views may differ
Liberalising restrictions on giving birth would mean an end to China’s family planning policy. But at present, it seems that officials have yet to completely let go of this bedrock national policy.
Given the fact that officials had emphasised the need to keep the country’s family planning policy intact just a few years ago, it is unlikely that birth restrictions will be lifted based on the findings of a national population census.
This is because the official stance on population development trends in China is clearly different from that of the general public. In March 2016, National Health and Family Planning Commission director Li Bin said that up to the middle of this century, China’s large population, a fundamental national trait, has not changed. In tandem, pressures on economic and social development, and competing tensions with resources and the environment have persisted. Thus, the fundamental national policy of family planning still needs to be maintained for the foreseeable future.
While China’s birth rate has fallen by quite a bit in recent years, whether this is enough to change the official view on population development trends or even completely change the policy remains unclear in the short term.
How China’s family planning policy is to be revised and whether it will stay or be abolished are indeed matters of great importance. Officials can only give a cautious reply after conducting a comprehensive analysis of the seventh census report and extensively collating the opinions of various departments, experts, scholars and the public. Given the fact that officials had emphasised the need to keep the country’s family planning policy intact just a few years ago, it is unlikely that birth restrictions will be lifted based on the findings of a national population census.
Twenty or even just ten years ago, people saw a large population as a burden. With greater industrialisation and urbanisation, however, their understanding of population challenges has changed considerably.
Even though the demographic dividend has diminished and there is now a more widespread call for the full liberalisation of birth policies, China remains the world’s most populous country and still faces the pressures of a large population in terms of resources, employment, and so on.
At the same time, a declining birth rate is also a new challenge that China must deal with. From doing everything possible to reduce the birth rate a few decades ago to the sharp decline in birth rate at present, finding the right balance between population makeup and economic and social development is not something that decision makers can easily do.
Note (updated 11 May 2021):
In the seventh national population census findings released on 11 May 2021, it was reported that China's overall population rose to 1.412 billion in 2020 from 1.4 billion in 2019. Meanwhile, the birth rate fell from 14.65 million in 2019 to 12 million in 2020.
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