Passengers pack the main station of Ningbo, a port and trading hub in eastern China, during 2019’s Lunar New Year break. Photo: Asia Times

China is counting its population of 1.4 billion as policymakers chart the country’s social and economic development for the next five years. 

Beijing is marshaling its army of statisticians for the house-to-house survey, held once every five years. The data will present a picture of demographic changes since 2015, when in a growing number of cities and provinces newborns are becoming an “endangered species” as populations age.  

Although “population growth inertia” helped China hit the 1.4 billion mark in 2019, the world’s most populous country has long seen dwindling numbers of newborns as its population increase slows to a trickle.

In 2019 the net increase was 4.67 million, compared with 5.3 million in 2018 and more than 10 million in 1999, according to the National Statistics Bureau. 

With a gross birth rate of 10.48 per thousand, there were 3.21 million fewer newborns nationwide in 2019 compared with 2016’s figure. 

This has triggered dire warnings from analysts including Liang Jianzhang, a professor with the Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, who beseeched Beijing to scrap the nation’s birth control regime in toto.

Their policy recommendations were largely shunned when President Xi Jinping in 2015 abolished the draconian “one-child” policy – in place since the 1970s – but still decided to cap the number of babies each couple could have to two. Xi, 67, only has a daughter aged 28.

Liang told a seminar last year when China’s population hit 1.4 billion that sweeping policy revisions should brook no further delay or the nation would find itself in irreversible population decrease that could be way worse than Japan’s.

He also said that the “demographic dividend” from the 2015 policy loosening was too trivial to help China offset the downward trend. 

In reply, officials with the National Health Commission, which is in charge of birth and family planning policies, said any further easing of birth controls could not happen too soon.

With China’s population growth plummeting, India is set to wrest the title of the world’s most populated nation from China in as few as five years. 

There were 1.4 billion Chinese and 1.368 billion Indians as of this month, according to ballpark estimates from the statistics departments of both countries. 

The current census will reveal more vital information including gross fertility rate, gender and age distribution, life expectancy, the size of the labor force, and more importantly, aging rate, a key metric that refers to the share of people of 65 or above.

The National Health Commission previously reckoned that China’s aging rate in 2019 stood at 12.6%, as the county nudged close to the 14% threshold, defined by the United Nations as a “grey nation” where there would be more elderly people than kids and teenagers.     

China’s bulging age bracket of elderly citizens means a shrinking labor force of those aged between 15 and 64. The headcount of paid employees has been dropping for eight straight years, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. 

Detailed analysis of the latest survey will be released by the year’s end, but preliminary figures suggest the enormity of the population hollowing-out in some major cities.

Shanghai, China’s most populous city with 22 million residents, recorded average daily newborns of just 2,000 in February and March in the thick of the Covid-19 plague, the city’s Xinmin Evening News reported.  

Officials hoped that the city’s partial lockdown and shelter-in-place orders in that two months could lead to a Covid baby boom at the end of the year or next spring. Still, there has been no obvious spike in the number of newly pregnant women visiting hospitals for checkups since April, according to Shanghai’s Municipal Health Bureau. 

Meanwhile, overseas observers say the lack of transparent, verifiable data from China has resulted in vastly different estimates among demographers about China’s actual birth rate and even total population. 

Demographer Yi Fuxian, with the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, even argued in a column in the South China Morning Post that China’s population may be overstated by as much as 115 million.

They say even with the ongoing census, the true size of the population could still be a mystery, given that many families in rural areas are reluctant to register unapproved second children or for the family planning bureau to report that they had failed to control births.

Rural counties are also incentivized to overreport population to receive more benefits from higher levels of government, while city districts report lower figures to meet population control targets, which are still assigned annually by the State Council and provincial authorities. 

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