A father outside the hospital meets his newborn baby wearing a face shield and his wife through the window in Satte, Saitama Prefecture on May 13, 2020. Father was not allowed to attend his birthing and meet them directly due to the outbreak of coronavirus COVID-19. ( The Yomiuri Shimbun )

Key findings from China’s latest population census have painted a better demographic picture than the decline many feared, officials say. 

Five months after the completion of the nationwide headcount, held once in a decade, statisticians made public key population data and figures on Tuesday. Ning Jizhe, the National Statistics Bureau (NSB) director, raised the prospect of a population rise. 

Ning said that, excluding foreigners and those from Hong Kong, Macau and the self-governing island of Taiwan, China added 72.06 million people between 2010 and 2020 to bring the total to 1,411,778,724 as of the end of 2020, an annualized increase rate of 0.53%.

He said the findings would “give the lie to the relentless fearmongering” by Western media about China slipping into a demographic “sinkhole.” 

The Financial Times, for instance, argued at the end of April that China’s population could have shrunk in 2020 for the first time in several decades, according to preliminary classified statistics. Beijing said these claims were false and that biased perceptions and hearsay would not tally with the truth of the census. 

China’s population grew by 0.8% year-on-year, or 11.73 million, in 2020, thanks to the sheer size of the population base and “growth inertia.” This is despite the pandemic causing negative birth rates across many provinces from Zhejiang to Heilongjiang after talk of a Covid baby boom amid sweeping lockdowns earlier that year failed to pan out. 

Other key takeaways from the census include: nearly 40% of Chinese now take up employment and live in urban centers and their industrialized areas in eastern and southern provinces and municipalities like Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang; males outnumber females by 34.9 million, with a gender ratio of 105; 18.7% of Chinese, or 260 million, are aged 60 or over; just 15.5% of Chinese have tertiary diplomas; 510 million Chinese are living in the nation’s vast rural areas.

Customers swamp an Apple Store in a mall in Shanghai. With a population of more than 24 million, Shanghai remains China’s most populous city. Photo: Asia Times
Retail needs a lift: A man carries a woman piggyback on a street surrounded by shops and malls in Shanghai. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP

The three northeastern provinces known as China’s rustbelt are seeing a population hollowing-out amid slumping birth rates and a brain drain to better-off regions, with Heilongjiang’s population decreasing by 6.46 million in the past decade.

Tianjin, Hunan and Hubei, all suffering sluggish economic growth and recovery, have reported fewer than a million aggregate population increases in the same period.

By contrast, coastal economic powerhouses of Guangdong and Zhejiang are reeling in fresh graduates and migrant workers from elsewhere, adding 21.7 million and 10.14 million to their respective totals.

Guangdong and Shandong are the two provinces boasting populations exceeding 100 million. Shanghai remains China’s most crowded city with 24.87 million dwellers, 1.85 million more than ten years ago. 

Analysts say Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong and Shanghai will emerge as the few standout winners in China’s future growth, as seen in people’s vote of confidence reflected in new births and flow of migrant workers to these regions.  

Tourists watch the National Day laser show in Guangzhou, capital of the southern Guangdong province. Guangdong has China’s largest provincial economy, more than 11 trillion yuan, and population, of 120 million. Photo: Weibo/Yangcheng Evening News

The NSB’s release of key data of the 7th census was postponed from early April. Rumors were then rife that a worse-than-expected gross birth rate and greying age structure could put further pressure and even force the issue of an overdue birth control reversal. 

Ning, the NSB chief, brushed aside what he called overblown concerns about China losing the title of the world’s most populous nation to India anytime soon, saying the total would hover above 1.4 billion for many years before peaking in the distant future.

However, the Bloomberg news service said that according to estimates from Bloomberg Economics, lower growth in the population meant numbers could peak before 2025. 

Other reassuring figures cited by Ning are that China still has 880 million people aged between 16 and 59, with a median age of 38. This data can help debunk talk about China’s rapidly shrinking labor force and strengthen the long-term prospect of China’s manufacturing and retail sectors.    

Xinhua cited scholars with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as saying that the numbers of these Chinese in their prime, the core asset of China’s human resources capital and economy, would still be bigger than the labor forces across key Western powers combined. The state news agency said the production and consumption power of these Chinese people were still waiting to be fully tapped. 

The latest statistics have convinced Beijing that any further relaxation of its birth control regime a couple can have up to two babies following 2015’s abolition of the one-child policy has become less pressing.  

Other than the NSB and the National Health Commission, other ministries responsible for public security, social security, welfare, home affairs, education and even town planning also have input — and often diverging views — on population management and birth control. 

Eric Mer, an associate professor with the Peking University’s School of Governance, told Asia Times that Beijing would need time to collect views, sometimes conflicting ones, from the raft of ministries and departments and weigh pros and cons before deciding on any drastic changes in favor of more childbearing autonomy for couples.

He said the latest census findings had assuaged certain worries as policymakers realized the demographic situation was not as gloomy as feared, if the data is to be believed.

Passengers at a train station in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo. Zhejiang, the province that has jurisdiction over the city, has recorded an aggregate population increase of more than 10 million in the past decade. Photo: Asia Times

Bloomberg News reported that researchers at the Chinese central bank recently called for a complete relaxation of birth restrictions. But it said the rising costs of raising children and preferences for smaller families suggested that reform would not change fertility trends.

Li Bin, former director of the now-defunct National Health and Family Planning Commission, said last year that China’s birth control policies contributed to the higher standard of living for all Chinese and must not be stigmatized.

He warned that by the middle of the century China’s population growth would continue to strain food and necessity supplies and pile pressure on the environment and therefore a certain level of birth control policy should continue. 

The four decades of the one-child policy, initiated by late party patriarch Deng Xiaoping when the country’s average income was ebbing, led to 400 million fewer births, according to the China Remin University’s Center for Population Studies. 

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