Once-a-Decade Census Shows an Aging, Better-Educated China

The births are falling. The population is aging. The workforce in the world’s second largest economy is shrinking.

China’s most recent once-a-decade census, conducted last year, showed the slowest population growth since the 1960s and confirmed that the country is in the midst of an urgent demographic crisis.

The results could lead the government to relax its family planning restrictions that have shaped the most intimate aspects of Chinese society – marriage, childbirth, and child rearing – for decades. The strong need for change has also shown how reluctant the authorities were to let go of control completely.

Here are some key takeaways from the census.

Perhaps the most anticipated question was about the future of childbirth in China as the country is aging rapidly. The answer was striking: on average, Chinese women are expected to have only 1.3 children at a time.

That would be one of the lowest birth rates in the world. In 2019, according to the World Bank, only five countries had lower rates – South Korea, Singapore, Malta, Ukraine and Spain. Only 12 million babies were born in China last year, the lowest official number since 1961, when the country emerged from a devastating famine.

Experts warned the pandemic may have been a major contributing factor, but births have now declined for four consecutive years.

The figures make it clear that China’s aging crisis cannot be resolved anytime soon. With older Chinese making up a larger proportion of the population while the younger workforce they would support declines, China’s pension funds and underdeveloped facilities for older adults are sure to feel strained. Adults over 60 now make up 18.7 percent of the population, compared with 13.3 percent in 2010.

Liang Jianzhang, a demographics expert at Peking University, said he expected the government to lift its remaining fertility limits soon. It ended its one-child policy five years ago and allowed families to have two children, but families with more can still be punished or denied services.

The Chinese government’s latest five-year plan, an economic plan released earlier this year, promised an even broader policy on child birth. Some unmarried women and gay couples hoped that they too could gain more rights and access to reproduction technologies such as in vitro fertilization.

“If you have a fertility policy, you should break restrictions by default,” said Professor Liang.

Despite their rhetoric, officials have sometimes placed greater restrictions on certain groups. In the western region of Xinjiang, officials are forcing women to have fewer babies in order to control the Muslim ethnic minorities there.

One of China’s most persistent problems in recent decades has been the male surplus, a product of the one-child policy that encouraged families to abort female fetuses or abandon girls. Tuesday’s data showed that the practice was gradually waning. Among the newborns, men were 111.3 to 100 more numerous than women. Ten years ago this ratio was 118.1 to 100.

“It’s positive because it indicates a shift toward changing attitudes about gender roles and the value of girls towards boys,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, a Hong Kong University of Science and Technology professor who studies demography. But that ratio is still higher than normal, suggesting boys are still preferred, he added.

The rise of women also faces official obstacles. To address the fertility crisis, officials in recent years have tried to put women back into traditional gender roles. Feminist activists have been arrested or censored online.

China has made great strides in improving the accessibility of education. From 2010 to 2020, the number of university graduates rose by 73 percent from 8,930 from 100,000 to 15,467. More than 218 million people now have a university education.

This rate, around 15 percent of the population, is still behind many industrialized countries. (On average in 2019, 39 percent of adults aged 25 to 64 in countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development had some form of higher education.) But it’s a tremendous achievement for a country that did in 1997 had fewer than 3.5 million undergraduate and graduate students.

However, experts have found that the rising numbers of college graduates may create a new problem: a lack of well-paying jobs to keep them busy. China’s economy is still largely dependent on workers. Ning Jizhe, head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, confirmed the loophole at a press conference on the census on Tuesday.

“The job pressure on students is increasing,” he said. “The pace of industrial transformation and modernization must be accelerated.”

If the new group of educated young people cannot find stable jobs, the birth rate could drop even further, said Professor Gietel-Basten. “If you have a situation where you have graduation unemployment and it is difficult to get access to these good jobs,” he said, “why should you have more babies?”

From 2010 to 2020, the proportion of people living in northeast China decreased by 1.2 percent, while that in the highly developed eastern region increased by 2.15 percent.

Northeast China, which includes Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, is often referred to as China’s rust belt: a once vibrant industrial center that has seen its economic flag of fate. As the region has declined in recent years, so has its population. But places like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong Province, and Zhejiang Province continued to boom.

Some of the growth could be due to rapid urbanization. The census found that the proportion of the urban population has increased by 14.2 percent to nearly 64 percent over the past decade.

However, experts said the adverse economic conditions caught northeast China in a downward spiral where people didn’t want babies and also moved out in search of better opportunities and social benefits.

“Education, pensions, health care – the regional differences are huge,” said Wang Feng, professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine. As the northeast continues to deplete, these differences could become even more pronounced, he added.

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