China's population decline is getting close to irreversible

Description

China’s total natural population[1] dropped by more than 2 million in 2023, according to the latest Chinese statistics. The country recorded 9.0 million births and 11.1 million deaths. Births continued their precipitous post-2016 decline—now down by more than 50 percent in just eight years—while deaths ticked up marginally again. This chart shows trends in Chinese birth and death rates (per 1,000 capita) since 1985, illustrating the recent collapse of birth numbers and the start of China’s total population decline—when deaths outnumber births—in 2022.

A birth number of about 9 million translates roughly into a total fertility rate (TFR)[2] of about 1.0 in China. Or, put another way, China is heading in the direction of South Korea (with an estimated TFR  of 0.72 in 2023) and is facing a far worse population drop than Japan, which started its demographic transition much earlier than others in East Asia in the mid-1990s. It benefited from a rapidly growing China, whose demand for Japanese exports and investment sustained Japan’s economy as domestic demand slowed down.

A marginal rebound in Chinese fertility rates may occur because some marriages postponed by now lifted COVID restrictions may take place and lead to a corresponding increase in fertility. (Out-of-wedlock births remain rare in China, hence the number of new marriages impacts near-term fertility rates.) Moreover, 2024 is the Chinese Year of the Dragon, often considered a fortuitous year to have children. But a potential further decline is likely in 2025 and beyond.

Nothing would suggest that the Chinese TFR will reverse and rise again in the long run—South Korea leads the way with its TFR down at 0.72, but Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai, and other major Chinese metropolises today all have TFRs at or well below 1. Compared to these places, Japan is a high fertility country among advanced Asian economies.

These dramatic demographic trends make China’s long-term economic prospects doubtful. How credible is it to grow Chinese household consumption when the actual number of consumers are falling by millions every year and the most consumption intensive group, newborns, declines so fast? Attempts at stabilizing the housing market similarly face severe impediments. In the longer run, the prospects for China exceeding the size of the US economy at market exchange rates must be considered as over. China will never exceed the size of the US economy. The trend raises the question: Why has the US political class taken such fright of a “rising China”?

It is worth noting that the dramatic post-2016 decline in the number of recorded births in China—about 50 percent in the last seven or eight years—is virtually unheard of in peacetime. One might wonder whether the pre-2016 data were inflated for political reasons related to the communist party decision to end the one- and two-child policies. This possibility suggests that even the recent and 2023 data might also be inflated.

Notes

1. Normally, to determine population trends, net migration figures should be added to a country’s natural (native/domestic) population, but given China’s enormous population and limited net migration, it is possible to draw general conclusions based only on changes in the natural Chinese population.

2. The total fertility rate, or TFR, is an estimate based on the age-specific probability of a woman of child-bearing age (typically estimated aged 15-49) having a child in a given year. In a single number it captures the number of children a woman aged 15-49 can be expected to have in a given year. As such, it is best thought of as the average number of children a woman can be expected to have in her lifetime.

More From

More on This Topic

Related Topics