For the past 10 years, China's domestic policy changes have carried a growing sense of demographic urgency. A strictly enforced one-child mandate changed to a two-kids-in-some-cases option (2013), which morphed into two children for all (2016), which rolled over to the current government push for three offspring (2021).
But where are the babies? Why aren't playgrounds as jammed as Beijing's notorious 3rd Ring Road? The workers of tomorrow are nowhere to be found.
Despite the government's best efforts, the data released last week by China's National Bureau of Statistics show that in 2021 in a nation of 1.4 billion people, there was a net population growth of only 480,000 people — against 10.1 million deaths and 10.6 million births — suggesting a disconnect between China's policy goals and its people.
"Working overtime night and day and facing the ridiculous cost of goods … who wants your children to grow up in such an environment?" said a poster on Weibo, China's microblogging platform.
"You can't have both mortgage and formula," another joked.
A third quipped, "Let's guess … will this year's Spring Festival gala be promoting the three kid policies?" The Spring Festival Gala, a TV production from the state-owned China Media Group, was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most watched TV program since 1983. And, according to state-controlled CCTV, it is an annual must-watch New Year's Eve extravaganza of dancing, singing and comedy.
China's birthrate has declined swiftly over the past five years, from 12.4 births for every 1,000 citizens in 2017 to 7.52 births for every 1,000 citizens in 2021, the lowest in nearly 60 years, according to statistics bureau records. The time span is significant because the Great Chinese Famine began in 1959 and ended in 1961, three years before China conducted its benchmark second census. "Some 30 million Chinese starved to death, and about the same number of births were lost or delayed," according to an article about the famine in the National Institutes of Health archive.
Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Big Country With an Empty Nest, told VOA Mandarin that "as China's economic miracle has been heavily based on its inexhaustible labor force, an inflection point in its population will inevitably mean an inflection point in its economic model."
Has population already peaked?
Although scholars have already referred to China's demographic crisis as a ticking time bomb, China's population may have peaked much earlier than projected given a rapidly aging population coupled with the rapidly declining birth rate, Yi said.
China's National Population Development Plan (2016-2030) estimated that the fertility rate between 2020 and 2030 would hover around 1.8 babies per woman of childbearing age, and that the country would start to experience negative population growth in 2031. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a public policy think tank, a nation needs a fertility rate of 2.1 to maintain a stable population.
China's true fertility rate may be lower than the official estimate, Yi said. "We will start to see the population decline in 2022, nine years earlier than expected," he added.
Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, wrote last week on his company's website that "the most likely scenario is that slowing productivity growth and a shrinking workforce prevent China ever passing the U.S."
China's seventh census, released in 2020, found that there were 880 million between the ages of 16 and 59 in the workforce, a sharp drop of more than 40 million compared with 2010 figures. You Jun, vice minister of China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, said in March that China's labor force would continue to decline, shrinking by as many as 35 million people in the next five years. In about 25 years, one-third of China's population will be retirees, according to the 2020 census report by China's National Bureau of Statistics.
China is not alone in facing this issue. A study published in October 2020 in The Lancet, a medical journal, warns of the "jaw-dropping" economic, social and geopolitical effects on nearly every country as fertility rates fall and populations shrink. "Our findings suggest that continued trends in female educational attainment and access to contraception will hasten declines in fertility and slow population growth," said the authors of the study.
Thomas Duesterberg, a senior fellow who specializes in economics at the Hudson Institute, said population growth is one of the most important sources of economic growth because as the workforce declines, so does the rate of innovation.
"The innovativeness and ingenuity of human beings is reduced because a large part of the creativity of people comes in the first part of their career," he told VOA Mandarin. "So, if you have an aging population and a declining population, you're likely to see less of that ability to innovate, which is another key element of growth going forward."
Ning Jizhe, head of China's National Bureau of Statistics, acknowledged after the release of the 2020 census that "the country's economic structure and technological development need to be adjusted and adapted" as the country's population structure changes.
Bill Conerly, an economist and the author of The Flexible Stance: Thriving in a Boom/Bust Economy, said the declining birth rate would not have an immediate impact on China's economy.
"A baby is a net drain on the economy for 15, 25 years and sometimes even longer. So I don't put a lot of importance in this," he told VOA Mandarin.
But in the long term, the declining birth rate will eventually affect the labor market. "Actually, the birth rate has been coming down for quite some time," he said. "So maybe China's only 10 years away from having a very tight labor market. It will eventually come."