HONG KONG — The world’s most populous country has reached a pivotal moment: China’s population has begun to shrink, after a steady, yearslong decline in its birthrate that experts say will be irreversible.
The government said on Tuesday that 9.56 million people were born in China last year, while 10.41 million people died. It was the first time deaths had outnumbered births in China since the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s failed economic experiment that led to widespread famine and death in the 1960s.
Chinese officials have tried for years to slow down the arrival of this moment, loosening a one-child policy and offering incentives to encourage families to have children. None of those policies worked. Now, facing a population decline, coupled with a long-running rise in life expectancy, the country is being thrust into a demographic crisis that will have consequences not just for China and its economy but for the world.
Over the last four decades, China emerged as an economic powerhouse and the world’s factory floor. The country’s transformation from widespread poverty to the world’s second largest economy led to an increase in life expectancy that contributed to the current population decline — more people were getting older while fewer babies were being born.
That trend has hastened another worrying event: the day when China will not have enough people of working age to fuel the high-speed growth that made it an engine of the global economy.
“In the long run, we are going to see a China the world has never seen,” said Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in China’s demographics. “It will no longer be the young, vibrant, growing population. We will start to appreciate China, in terms of its population, as an old and shrinking population.”
Births were down from 10.6 million in 2021, the sixth straight year that the number had fallen, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. By 2035, 400 million people in China are expected to be over 60, accounting for nearly a third of its population. Labor shortages that will accompany China’s rapidly aging population will also reduce tax revenue and contributions to a pension system that is already under enormous pressure.
Whether or not the government can provide widespread access to elder care, medical services and a stable stream of income later in life will affect a long-held assumption that the Communist Party can provide a better life for its people.
The news of China’s population decline comes at a challenging time for the government in Beijing, which is dealing with the fallout from the sudden reversal last month of its zero-tolerance policy toward Covid.
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The Chinese government cast aside its restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which had set off mass protests that were a rare challenge to Communist Party leadership.
The data on Tuesday showed a small increase in mortality last year, to 10.41 million deaths compared to around 10 million in recent years, raising questions about how a recent Covid surge may have contributed to the numbers.
Last week, officials unexpectedly revised the Covid death figures for the first month after reporting single-digit daily deaths for weeks. But experts have questioned the accuracy of the new figure — 60,000 deaths between Dec. 8 and Jan. 12.
On Tuesday, Kang Yi, commissioner of the National Bureau of Statistics, said said the Covid death figures for December had not yet been incorporated into the overall death totals for 2022.
China also on Tuesday released data that showed the depth of its economic challenges. The country’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of its commercial vitality, grew just 2.9 percent in the last three months of the year after widespread lockdowns and the recent surge in Covid infections. Over the whole year, China’s economy grew only 3 percent, its slowest rate in nearly four decades.
This historical demographic moment was not unexpected. Chinese officials last year conceded that the country was on the verge of a population decline that would likely begin before 2025. But it came sooner than demographers, statisticians and China’s ruling Communist Party had anticipated.
China has followed a trajectory familiar to many developing countries as their economies get richer — fertility rates fall as incomes rise and education levels increase. As the quality of life improves, people live longer.
“It’s the kind of situation that economists dream of,” said Philip O’Keefe, the director of the Aging Asia Research Hub, ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Aging Research.
But the government shortened its timeline to prepare for this moment by moving too slowly to loosen restrictive birth policies. “They could have given themselves a little more time,” said Mr. O’Keefe.
Officials have taken several steps in recent years to try to slow the decline in births. In 2016, they relaxed the one-child policy that had been in place for 35 years, allowing families to have two children. In 2021, they raised the limit to three. Since then, Beijing has offered a range of incentives to couples and small families to encourage them to have children, including cash handouts, tax cuts and even property concessions.
China’s situation is a stark contrast with India, whose total population is poised to exceed China’s later this year, according to a recent estimate from the United Nations. But India’s fertility rate is also declining rapidly.
Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, recently made the country’s demographic challenges a priority, pledging “a national policy system to boost birthrates.” But in reality, experts said, China’s plunging birth figures reveal an irreversible trend.
“The aggregate decline in population and decline in working-age population — both of those are irreversible,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “I don’t think there is a single country that has gone as low as China in terms of fertility rate and then bounced back to the replacement rate.”
Together with Japan and South Korea, China has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, below what demographers call the fertility replacement rate required for a population to grow. That figure would require every couple, on average, to have two children.
So far, the government’s measures have failed to change the underlying fact that many young Chinese people simply do not want children. They often cite the increasingly high cost of raising them, especially with the economy in a precarious state.
Rachel Zhang, a 33-year-old photographer in Beijing, decided before she married her husband that they would not have children. Sometimes, elders in the family nag them about having a baby.
“I am firm about this,” Ms. Zhang said. “I have never had the desire to have children all along.” The rising costs of raising a child and finding an apartment in good school district have hardened her resolve.
Other factors have contributed to such reluctance to have more children, including the burden that many younger adults face in taking care of aging parents and grandparents.
China’s strict “zero Covid” policy — nearly three years of mass testing, quarantines and lockdowns, resulting in some families being separated for long periods of time — may have led even more people to decide against having children.
Luna Zhu, 28, and her husband have parents who are willing to take care of their grandchildren. And she works for a state-owned enterprise that provides a good maternity leave package. But Ms. Zhu, who got married five years ago, is not interested.
“Especially the past three years of the epidemic, I feel that many things are so hard,” Ms. Zhu said.
Li You contributed research and Keith Bradsher contributed reporting.