China said its population hit 1.41 billion in 2020, eking out a tiny rise from the previous year, underlining how the world’s most populous nation is going to have to face its demographic challenges sooner than expected.
The number—up from the 1.40 billion official data showed for 2019—indicated that China’s population has only gone up by 72 million since the last census, in 2010.
In a news conference after the release, Ning Jizhe, head of the National Bureau of Statistics, said there were 12 million births last year, which would represent an 18% drop from the 14.65 million the year before, a trend that is likely to increase pressure on Beijing to ease remaining birth restrictions. It was the fourth straight year of declining births after a rise in 2016, the first year after China ended the three-decade-old one-child policy.
Mr. Ning said China’s fertility rate—the average number of babies a woman will have over her lifetime—dropped to 1.3 last year, which he acknowledged as a low level. By comparison, the U.S.—also in a fertility slump—last week reported a total fertility rate of 1.64 last year.
Meanwhile, the population of older Chinese continues to balloon.
The data showed a sharp rise in the percentage of Chinese aged 60 and above, to 18.7% of the population from 13.3% in 2010.
The portion of Chinese aged between 15 and 59 stood at 63.35% in 2020, down from 70.1% in 2010.
The pandemic’s effect on the population count was unclear. While China quickly reined in the spread of infections within its borders, demographers say coronavirus concerns probably contributed to suppressing births.
China’s demographic situation has in a short time moved to the forefront of Beijing’s economic concerns. The trend of fewer young people to replace a growing number of retirees has been clear for years but dealing with it has largely been kicked down the road as leaders have focused on mounting debt, a trade war with the U.S. and reining in a once freewheeling private sector.
Now, Beijing can no longer ignore the demographic shadow over long-term growth. Pension shortfalls in the country’s northeastern Rust Belt have forced the central government to ask state-owned enterprises as well as wealthier and younger provinces in the south to help out with the pension pool.
Births will probably drop further in the coming years as the one-child policy has resulted in a shrinking number of childbearing women, said Yi Fuxian, a U.S.-based researcher and a longtime critic of China’s population policies.
“What’s disastrous for China’s economy behind the data is a fundamental demographic shift,” Mr. Yi said.
The aging of the population is expected to be a major drain on the country’s savings. And just when China is turning to consumption as a growth driver, older people worried about pension payouts—and with just one child to help them in their old age—are likely to become reluctant to spend.
Leaders have long pointed to automation as one thing that will help offset declines in the working-age population, which has been shrinking since 2012, according to official data. But economists have expressed doubt about that strategy. In March, researchers at China’s central bank released a paper calling for a much stronger response to the country’s dire demographic outlook. “We must realize that education and technology advancement can hardly compensate for the decline in population,” it said.
The census results were released after weeks of delay. The statistics bureau had said it would release the data in early April but then said it needed more time. After the Financial Times, citing people familiar with the data, reported that Beijing would post a population decline for the first time in decades, the statistics bureau—in a one-sentence statement on April 29—said the population grew last year and that the census would have more details.
A research report released late last year by the China Population and Development Research Center, a government think tank, predicted that China’s population will peak in 2027 at 1.417 billion. That is three years earlier than what Beijing had predicted in 2017. It isn’t clear whether further revisions will be necessary after the census results.
China is still expected to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, but some economists warn it may not be able to hold on to that spot if the number of workers keeps shrinking. Unlike the U.S., China doesn’t rely on immigration to help replenish the workforce.
In 2016, China started allowing all couples to have two children, but the baby boom that policy makers had hoped for didn’t materialize. The one-child policy helped create a mind-set of focusing all of a couple’s resources on one child and many families feel they simply can’t afford a second one.
And the rare couple that wants more than two children runs the risk of punishment as long as China’s birth restrictions remain on the books.
A 33-year-old former local-government worker in Hangzhou, who preferred using only her last name, Li, is suing her employer, which let her go four months after she gave birth to a third child last year. Chinese law bans employers from firing employees during the months immediately after a child is born.
Early this year, Ms. Li resorted to a labor-dispute arbitrage board in Hangzhou, which ruled that because she had violated family-planning regulations, she wasn’t covered by maternity-leave protections.
In a statement posted on the Weibo social-media platform, Ms. Li said she felt like “in our country, giving birth can be a sin.”
In recent years, some local authorities have started to quietly allow families to have a third child without the usual repercussions, parents and demographers say.
Even officials and researchers who have long supported China’s family-planning policies are now shifting their rhetoric to stress the need to boost births.
In 2015, after China said it would lift the one-child policy, Wang Peian, then a deputy director of China’s family-planning commission, called family planning a “fundamental state policy” that China should adhere to for a long time. Two years later, Mr. Wang disputed that China faced a risk of a population shortage. “Not now, not in 100 years,” he said at a news conference where he predicted between 17 million and 19 million births a year through 2020.
Instead, after a rise to 17.86 million in 2016, births fell in each subsequent year.
In April, Mr. Wang, now a member of the Communist Party’s political advisory body, called for a “significant adjustment of population policy” in favor of measures to encourage births, according to a newspaper run by the advisory body.
Then in March, the central bank published its paper saying the lifting of birth restrictions can’t wait. “If we have any hesitation in [changing course] we’ll miss the precious window to change the course of population policy,” the central-bank researchers wrote.
—Grace Zhu contributed to this article.
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8