China’s population fell by more than 2m last year

Coronavirus drove deaths upwards as birth rate plunged to a record low

China’s population fell by more than two million in 2023 as coronavirus drove deaths upwards and the birth rate plunged to a record low. The decline comes a year after China’s population fell for the first time in 60 years and it could have major implications for the country’s economic prospects.

The National Bureau of Statistics said on Wednesday that China’s population stood at 1.409 billion in 2023, a drop of 2.08 million or 0.15 per cent over the previous year. It was the biggest population decline the country has seen since the Great Famine under Mao Zedong in the early 1960s.

Some 11.1 million people died last year, some of them from the effects of coronavirus after zero-Covid restrictions were abruptly lifted at the end of 2022. The death rate was higher than in any year since 1974, towards the end of the Cultural Revolution and before China’s economic reform and opening up under Deng Xiaoping.

Just 9.02 million babies were born in 2023, down from 9.56 million in 2022, and the birth rate fell to 6.39 per 1,000 people from 6.77 per cent. China’s birth rate is now lower than at any time since records began in 1949, the year the People’s Republic of China was established.


China’s large population helped to drive its economic growth over the past four decades but population growth has been slowing since 2016. India overtook China last year to become the world’s most populous country, according to United Nations projections.

China has liberalised its one-child policy in recent years and its official policy now is to limit families to three children. The changes have not reversed the downward trend, however, and the cost of housing, education and childcare have encouraged young Chinese people to delay having children or to decide not to have any.

Wednesday’s figures showed that the number of people over 60 has now reached almost 300 million, more than 21 per cent of the population. Men in China can retire at 60 and women at 55, although the retirement age for women in manual work is 50.

Beijing this week unveiled a plan to adapt China’s economy to an ageing population by encouraging companies to address the needs of older consumers. The government believes that the so-called “silver economy” could account for 10 per cent of China’s output by 2035.

Ninety per cent of Chinese people spend their final years at home rather than in nursing homes or other specialised settings. With most older people having only one child, the burden of caring for an ageing population is spread thinly.

While some economists worry that China’s declining population will create labour shortages, government planners hope that automation and artificial intelligence will be able to fill many of the gaps.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times