The Irish Times view on China’s census: a demographic time bomb

China’s problem is that it is growing old without first having grown rich

With only 12 million babies born to China's mothers last year, the lowest number of births in 60 years, the world's most populous country may be passed out in coming years by India. The emerging demographic crisis, highlighted in a new census this week, is already causing significant labour shortages and jeopardising economic growth, while its fast-ageing population is beginning to put severe strains on overstretched hospitals and an underfunded pension system that risks running out of money by 2036.

China’s population has now reached 1.41 billion people, up 72 million since 2010. The census puts the average annual growth rate at 0.53 per cent over the past decade, down from 0.57 per cent in the previous 10 years. And the trend is expected to continue. China’s fertility rate – the average number of children born over a woman’s lifetime – now stands at only 1.3, well below the replacement rate of 2.1, a decline seen mainly in rich developed countries. But China’s problem is that it is growing old without first having grown rich.

For leader Xi Jinping, the political challenge is huge. At stake is the fate of his "Chinese dream," a pledge of long-term economic prosperity and national rejuvenation on which he has staked his legacy. The Communist Party's family planning policy, deeply unpopular particularly in rural areas, has clearly been too successful. The harshly enforced "one child policy" instituted in 1980, eased in 2016 to a two-child policy cut births by as much as 400 million.

There are no easy fixes. Growing numbers of educated Chinese women are delaying marriage, which is declining since 2014, while the divorce rate rises consistently. Many young people are put off by the cost of raising children. Nor is the country willing to rely on immigration to boost its population. Now people over the age of 65 account for 13.5 per cent of the population , up from 8.9 percent in 2010. China will inevitably be faced by pressure to raise the retirement age, among the world's lowest at 60 for men and 50 for most women. That will not go down well.