China's population did not shrink, as I had indicated it might late last month, when the country finally released its long-delayed census results. The meager growth of 5.4% over the course of the last decade through 2020 was, however, the slowest pace on record since China started conducting a formal census in 1953.
It leaves China with 1.41 billion people, still of course the most in any one nation. India is likely to wrest away that title later this decade, with 2027 the likely year those two graphs will cross.
Birth rates, population growth and the "Chinese dream" are intertwined in China, and contentious. The Communist Party has brought low birth rates to bear after it imposed its draconian one-child policy in 1979. The children born to that generation are now having children, and not, apparently, enough of them.
So these numbers are being treated like nuclear codes. The explosive census conclusion is that China is "getting old before it gets rich," leapfrogging developed nations like Japan that led the way into old age. The new numbers show that 13.5% of the Chinese population is over the age of 65, a weight of people that threatens to crush the national health and pension services. There are now more people of retirement age in China than there are under the age of 14.
The very first thing we are told about the figures is that they come under the "strong leadership of the Communist Party of China Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core," a piece of boilerplate that prefaces every utterance out of the Chinese leadership. Xi and the party "attached great importance to the Census." Xi in fact did some of the counting himself, we are told a little bizarrely, just one of the 7 million census takers, and gave "an important speech."
Who knows how massaged these new numbers are... but in normal times, China's figures for GDP are remarkably consistent with what its government forecast. Chinese Communist Party planning can't be wrong. The census figures were due for delivery in early April but the deadline slipped. Officials said the numbers needed "more preparation work," suggesting they have indeed been carefully tailored. China narrowly missed a target set in 2016, when it lifted the one-child law, that its population would stand at 1.42 billion in 2020.
China's birth rate has fallen to 1.30 children per woman, the latest figures show, lower than Japan's at 1.38. In fact, it makes China one of the bottom 10 least-fertile nations in the world, according to this handy country-by-country comparison of 227 countries. The Chinese territories of Hong Kong (1.22) and Macau (1.21) are producing even fewer children, with Taiwan right at the bottom at only 1.07 births per woman.
One of the most-shocking changes is just how overwhelmingly urban China has become. Roughly two-thirds (63.9%) of the population now lives in cities, with the trend intensifying fast as more and more people move to cities, and the rural population shrinks through departures, deaths and lower births. It's a stunning shift. At the time of the last census in 2010, the country had an even 50-50 split between cities and the countryside. So this has been a lightning-fast change for demographics that normally change at a glacial pace. At the time of the previous census in 2000, the situation was reversed: two-thirds of the Chinese population lived in the countryside, and only one-third in the cities.
In two decades, China has switched from rural to urban, in other words.
Xi started talking about the "Chinese Dream" in late 2012, right as he became the leader of the Communist Party, and before he ascended to the presidency. There's a handy backgrounder here, but it's a loosely defined term that revolves around national pride, economic growth and personal wellbeing. Only when the country is doing well can the people do well, he said. These demographics are a headwind against that happening.
The strict one-child limitation was raised to two children in 2016, but there will now be pressure for any cap to be scrapped altogether. While rural and minority populations have typically had slightly more lenient restrictions, allowing more children, there's mounting evidence that Chinese officials have among the Muslim population in westernmost Xinjiang province been conducting forced sterilizations or pressuring women to get contraceptive devices fitted. The United States this year deemed China to be committing genocide against its Muslim minorities.
China, of course, denies this. The new figures show that the population is 91.1% Han Chinese, but 8.9% comprised of minorities. China often champions its "diversity," and any cultural show will put on parade the 55 ethnic minority groups that China recognizes. The new figures "prove" that no genocide can possibly be occurring - the Han population rose 4.9%, but the minority population climbed 10.3%, shifting the balance 0.40 percentage points toward the minority groups.
Another outcome of the one-child policy has been to leave a large cohort of single men, since rural families in particular valued having a son. Although it was illegal to abort female embryos, sex selection still occurred to some degree. That has left China's population 51.2% male, with 34.9 million "excess" males knocking around town solo, looking for trouble, or mail-order brides.
This seventh official census gives a body count as of November 1, 2020. The total number of Chinese people climbed by 72.1 million, with average annual growth slowing to 0.53%, down from 0.57%. Average household size is also shrinking, falling quite dramatically to 2.62 people per home, down from 3.10 people in 2010, as urban China splinters and renders the traditional multigenerational household a relic of the past.
China's 1.30 fertility rate is considerably lower than the 1.84 babies being born to each woman in the United States, which itself has reported its slowest growth since the Great Depression. The U.S. population grew 7.4% in its own recent census, for the decade through April 1, 2020. Much like Japan, China has been highly resistant to augmenting its population through immigration.
Fertility is unlikely to pick up even if China's population controls are entirely removed. Here in Hong Kong, I frequently hear that it's "too expensive to have another kid." From birth through university, the cost is just shy of US$1 million in Hong Kong, US$937,000 in fact, according to this child-cost calculator from a Hong Kong think tank. The trend and the costs are similar in big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, where the cost of living is now in many ways higher than in Hong Kong.
The population totals for Hong Kong and Macau aren't included in the mainland overall count. The number of people in Hong Kong climbed to 7.5 million, up from 7.1 million at the last census, buoyed by a migration program that allows certain mainlanders to move to the city. The gambling mecca of Macau saw its population climb to 683,218 residents, up from 552,300 at the time of the last count.
The ageing of the Chinese population is forcing the government to push a highly unpopular decision, to raise the retirement age. That currently stands at 50 for blue-collar women, 55 for white-collar women and 60 for men. It is a particularly unattractive move for the legion of less-educated, older blue-collar workers approaching retirement, who have experienced very low average incomes in often back-breaking work, tolerated given the end goal of reaching retirement and a meager government pension. The government has been vague about the specifics but confirmed in March that it will raise retirement gradually over the next few years on a progressive scale. Employees who are due to retire soon will have to work a few months more, while younger people would see their working lifespan extended by several years.