China’s population declines for first time since end of Great Famine in 1961

India may overtake China this year as the world’s most populous country

China’s population shrank last year for the first time since the end of the Great Famine in 1961 as its birth rate fell to its lowest level since records began in 1949. Demographers believe the drop of 850,000 to 1.41 billion marks the beginning of an extended period of population decline, with India expected to overtake China this year as the world’s most populous country.

The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said that 9.56 million babies were born in China last year, almost 10 per cent fewer than in 2021 and 10.41 million people died, producing a negative growth rate of 0.6 per thousand people. The figures also showed a fall in the proportion of Chinese people who are of working age to 62 per cent compared to 70 per cent a decade ago.

Kang Yi, the head of the NBS, said that although the death rate increased to its highest level since the 1970s, the fall in the number of newborn babies was the main driver of the population decline last year.

“That’s mainly a result of drop in people’s willingness to have babies, the delay in marriage and pregnancy, as well as a fall in number of women of child-bearing age,” he said.


In 2015, China abandoned its one-child policy after 35 years, increasing the number of children allowed in most families first to two and in 2021 to three. But the birth rate has continued to fall as surveys suggest that young couples are deterred from having children by the rising cost of housing and education.

Some local authorities have introduced incentives to encourage people to have more children, including tax breaks and monthly cash payments.

Mr Kang said the fall in China’s population was no reason for concern and that the country’s labour force was still more than enough to meet demand. Recent years have seen a rise in youth unemployment, which is approaching 20 per cent, a trend exacerbated by the economic downturn associated with China’s zero-Covid policy.

The population decline, which has started earlier than United Nations demographers predicted until recently, will have an impact on China’s economy. It will reduce demand for housing, which has been a driver of economic growth in recent years and could lead to labour shortages that will hamper development.

Mr Kang suggested that improvements in “labour quality”, or greater worker productivity, could offset the economic downside of the declining population. But a smaller population could make China less likely to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy in the coming decades.

The UN predicts that China’s population will fall by 100 million to 1.3 billion by 2050 and will be just 767 million by the end of the century, a little over half its current population. The US population is expected to increase from its current 332 million to 375 million in 2050.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times