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China’s population grows at slowest rate in decades

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China’s population grew at its slowest rate in decades in the 10 years to 2020, according to census data released on Tuesday, which also showed that births declined sharply last year.

The nation’s once-in-a-decade census, which was completed in December, showed its population increased to 1.41bn in 2020 compared with 1.4bn a year earlier, the National Bureau of Statistics said.

The Financial Times reported last month that the Chinese government would reveal the first year-on-year population decline in 60 years in the census data. People close to the NBS said the initial population figure came in at less than 1.4bn, but was revised up.

The official figures released on Tuesday showed the population grew just 5.4 per cent from 1.34bn in 2010 — the lowest rate of increase between censuses since the People’s Republic of China began collecting data in 1953.

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China’s population added 5.8 per cent in the decade to 2010 and grew by double-digit percentage amounts between each of the previous censuses, which were held in 1953, 1964, 1982, 1990 and 2000.

China’s slowing rate of population growth has already raised concerns about a looming demographic crisis and prompted government measures to try to increase the birth rate, including a relaxation of the one-child policy. There were just 12m births in 2020, down 18 per cent from 2019 and the lowest number since 1961.

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“The trend is inevitable,” said Zhou Hao, an economist at Commerzbank. “No country has been able to reverse it.” 

Those over-65s now make up 13.5 per cent of the population, compared with 8.9 per cent in 2010 when the last census was completed.

“The further ageing of the population imposed continued pressure on the long-term balanced development of the population in the coming period,” said Ning Jizhe, a spokesperson for the NBS.

More than a dozen cities, especially in China’s north-eastern provinces, reported falling population figures last year because of sluggish birth rates and an exodus of young workers seeking opportunities in more economically vibrant regions.

China’s migrant worker population also fell last year for the first time since records began in 2008, according to NBS.

Beijing began relaxing birth restrictions in 2015, when couples were allowed to have two children instead of one, but the laxer policies have not had their intended effect. The policy stoked two years of rising births before the figure dropped in subsequent years.

The situation has led to calls for the abolition of family planning entirely, ending a policy China launched in the late 1970s when authorities regarded the country’s population as a burden rather than an asset.

The central government, however, has remained cautious. The National Health Commission said in February that it was considering allowing north-eastern provinces to participate in a “pilot program” that would do away with all birth restrictions.

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Government advisers said there were still disagreements on what a shrinking population might mean for China. 

“A large population will put a huge ecological pressure on China,” said a Beijing-based scholar who advises the central government. “We need to consider whether China really needs so many people.”

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing

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