The number of babies born in China dropped to the lowest level in almost 60 years in 2018, a sign the birth rate is slowing in the world's most populous nation despite efforts to encourage more children.
There were 15.23 million births last year, down two million on the previous year, according to figures from the National Bureau of Statistics. The overall population grew by five million people last year to 1.395 billion.
The fall in the number of births is the largest since Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, a programme of agricultural reform that led to a famine that is thought to have killed millions. In 1960, the total population fell by 10 million, with a large number believed to have starved to death.
Last year’s birth figures are the third-lowest since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The Chinese government has estimated its population will peak in 2029 at 1.442 billion, and then start to decline in the year after that, although one US-based expert, Yi Fuxian, believes the real figures are worse than the data suggests and says China's overall population is already shrinking.
Three years ago China relaxed the one-child policy of population control to encourage more births. The falling birth rate combined with the ageing population means China faces a troublesome dependency ratio in coming years, with fewer young people forced to provide for a growing number of old people.
The government is expected to do away with limits on the number of children families can have by 2020.
However, young people are apparently reluctant to have more children as they worry about rising education and healthcare costs and rising rents.
There were indications the birth numbers would be bad after data from major Chinese cities already released showed significant declines.
In Yantai in Shandong province, which had China’s highest fertility rate in 2017, the number of newborns fell 16 per cent from the same period last year.
In Ningbo, in the prosperous east of the country, births declined by about 17 per cent.
Yi Fuxian, a research fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has long argued that China needs to change its population policy to encourage more children.
"The year of 2018 was the turning point of China's population structure, which witnessed a negative growth for the first time," Mr Yi predicted in a recent interview with the Global Times.
Demographers predict that China’s population could fall to 1.172 billion by 2065.
The population data adds to growing concerns about the world’s second largest economy. The Chinese economy grew by its slowest rate since the 2009 financial crisis during the last quarter, as the government deals with an ongoing trade war with the US and high levels of debt.