China’s Delayed Census Points to Severe Population Decline

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Pedestrians walk past a billboard for China's coming census on October 29, 2010 in Beijing. The release of data from China’s 2020 Census has been repeatedly delayed. Many analysts speculate the communist nation is facing a severe population decline stemming from a multitude of hard-to-resolve factors.
Pedestrians walk past a billboard for China's coming census on October 29, 2010 in Beijing. The release of data from China’s 2020 Census has been repeatedly delayed. Many analysts speculate the communist nation is facing a severe population decline stemming from a multitude of hard-to-resolve factors. (Image: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s seventh census, which was scheduled for release in April, is still yet to be released as of May 3. Despite the delay in the final report, population data from more than 27 cities have already been released by local governments, and many of which show an alarming statistic: a negative natural growth rate. 

This revelation echoes rumors of a spawning demographic crisis for the Communist Party-ruled world’s largest population, and has generated heated debate among both the Chinese and international public.

Population decline ‘considered very sensitive’

On November 1, 2020, the Seventh National Census was officially launched by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The entire registration process was scheduled to end on December 10, and on December 30, the National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBSC) announced the completion of all fieldwork. 

On March 15 of this year, NBSC spokesman Liu Aihua said the Census had reached its final stage of review and compilation, and that Beijing intended to announce results in early April. However, during an April 16 press conference, Liu only could make a vague promise that results would be announced as soon as possible.

As of early May, CCP officials have yet to state their position on when the report will actually be released.

Some details can be determined from analysis of local media reports, however. According to 21st Century Business Herald, at least 26 prefecture-level cities have already disclosed population figures. Eight of them report Natural Population Growth (NPG) rates falling below zero.

The NPG statistic measures the difference between the number of births and deaths in a population. A negative rate would imply more people are dying than being born in that locale.

Fushun City in Northeast China is the worst among the cities that have released data so far, with a NPG rate of -13.3 percent; Shenyang in Northeast China is -3.34 percent, while Weihai in Shandong is -3.05 percent. In addition, five cities in southern China’s Jiangsu Province, namely Taizhou, Yangzhou, Zhenjiang, Changzhou, and Wuxi all also recorded negative NPG figures.

In addition to the cities mentioned above, 21st Century Business Herald cites data projecting that almost all cities in China will experience population decline from 2020 onwards. The source of the decline is not expected to result from people having moved from urban to rural areas, but because of a real population decline.

Passengers gather in the waiting hall at Hongqiao Railway Station ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays in Shanghai on February 6, 2018. China may be looking at losing its title of the world’s largest population to India as the nation, plagued by the long-term impact of negative Communist Party social policies, suffers an ever worsening population crisis.
Passengers gather in the waiting hall at Hongqiao Railway Station ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays in Shanghai on February 6, 2018. China may be looking at losing its title of the world’s largest population to India as the nation, plagued by the long-term impact of negative Communist Party social policies, suffers an ever worsening population crisis. (Image: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

A social science expert quoted by the publication pointed out that “some big cities are also gradually entering negative population growth cycle, which is a major turnaround that has happened silently and may not be felt by many people yet.”

On April 21, an article titled An Analysis of the Reasons for the Delay in Releasing the Seventh Census Data by an anonymous author was published on U.S.-based Chinese language media outlet Boxun News. The article said that the release of the Seventh Census data was delayed because a lot of information “has to be added.” 

The author commented, “The census was conducted using information technology, so technically there should not be a delay, but rather the final results should be available sooner. The only explanation, then, is that the data from the Census reflect the fact that China is facing a big crisis, and that officials need time to digest and give explanations.”

Financial Times also quoted “people familiar with the research” as saying mainland China will experience its first population decline, expecting the total population to fall to less than 1.4 billion. FT said the unnamed sources cautioned “the figure was considered very sensitive and would not be released until multiple government departments had reached a consensus on the data and its implications.”

Data showed China’s newborn population peaked in 2017 after the CCP relaxed its notorious One Child Policy in 2016. However, the statistic continues to decline.

According to the 2019 China Statistical Annual Report, the population of mainland China grew to 1.4 billion. 14.65 million births were reported that year, down just 3.8 percent from 15.23 million in 2018. However, 2019 statistics from many local governments differed from official figures, reflecting a population decline of approximately 10 percent.

It is also worth noting that when China’s population exceeded 1.2 billion and 1.3 billion, grand celebrations such as “1.2 Billion Population Day” and “1.3 Billion Population Day” were thrown by the Communist Party, but when the population hit the 1.4 billion milestone, there was no publicity through state propaganda organs. A 2019 Ministry of Public Security report showed only 11.79 million people were born and registered in that year, greatly differing from the official figure of 14.65 million.

The data mismatch also shows the possibility that CCP officials may have been involved in falsifying or exaggerating numbers until the decennial census was made. 

FT quoted the Bank of China as saying, “It is almost a fact that China has overestimated its birth rate. The challenges brought about by China’s demographic shift could be bigger [than expected],” while an advisor to Beijing, who declined to identify themselves, said, “Such overestimates stemmed in part from the fiscal system’s use of population figures to determine budgets, including for education and public security.”

Consequences of fudging population numbers

In 2000, after Census statistics showed China’s fertility rate was only 1.2 percent, and the number of births was 14.08 million, the Party determined it was time to launch campaigns to encourage fertility. However, at the time, the National Health and Family Planning Commission of the People’s Republic of China (NHFPC) claimed that it was “impossible” to have such a low fertility rate, and that if fertility planning was relaxed, the figure would balloon to 2.1 percent and would lead to an unacceptable, infinite expansion of the population.

Prior to the CCP’s relaxation of the One Child Policy to a full two-child policy in 2016, the NHFPC predicted that 47 million babies would be born each year; in fact, the birth rate in 2016 was much lower than expected, at 1.24 percent, meaning only approximately 12 million babies were born.

In 2017, the CCP’s 19th National Congress convened to consider, among other things, whether the NHFPC should continue to exist. In order to survive, the birth control commission at one point falsely announced that China’s birth rate was in line with expectations, forecasting 18.46 million births would occur in 2018. 

In fact, the real numbers, which only surfaced in 2018 after the NHFPC was abolished, showed only 13.62 million babies were born that year, far fewer than family planners’ prediction. However, the NBSC has always used the NHFPC’s figures in its calculations.

A woman cycles past a billboard encouraging couples to have only one child, along a road leading to a village in the suburb of Beijing, 25 March 2001. The CCP’s much-decried One Child Policy has had serious economic and social consequences for the country. Even a relaxation to a two and three child policy has not rectified China’s population crisis.
A woman cycles past a billboard encouraging couples to have only one child, along a road leading to a village in the suburb of Beijing in March of 2001. The CCP’s much-decried One Child Policy has had serious economic and social consequences for the country. Even a relaxation to a two and three child policy has not rectified China’s population crisis. (Image: GOH CHAI HIN/AFP via Getty Images)

As China reformed its household registration system in 2010, many people saw an opportunity presented by a loophole in buying and selling birth certificates and applying for dual or even multiple accounts in urban and rural areas in order to receive a swath of more than 20 social benefits such as preferential housing and medical coverage. This resulted in further falsification of population figures.

Last year, Yi Fuxian, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of a book critical of the CCP’s family planning schemes, Big Country with an Empty Nest, published his analysis of the 2020 Census in Social Science Forum 2020, Issue No. 6, which said that China’s total population was actually 1.26 billion in 2020 instead of 1.4 billion. 

If Yi’s analysis is indeed correct, China would have lost the throne of the world’s most populous country to India, which has a population of 1.38 billion.

The aging crisis

China has been the world’s most populous country for the past decade. However, the One Child Policy the CCP pursued since 1979 to artificially control its population has brought the nation both a severe aging problem and gender imbalance. 

The Communist Party officially relaxed its policies to a two-child policy in 2016, and is now relaxing it once more, allowing people to have three children. However, not only was there no signs of an expected baby boom in response, but the birth rate actually dropped to 10.48 per 1,000 in 2019, with a total of 14.65 million births, and is expected to drop to less than 11 million by 2030. Meanwhile, China’s fertility rate has been lower than Japan’s since 2000.

At the same time, the elderly population has more than doubled in less than 10 years. As of 2019, there were more than 250 million elders over 60 years old, accounting for 18.1 percent of the population. It is expected that by 2035, China’s 60+ age bracket will reach 400 million people, accounting for 28 percent of the entire population. 

At present, this is the fastest rate of aging of any country in the world.

Yi Fuxian found in his analysis that the median age in China in 1980 was only 22, while in India it was 20, and in the United States it was 30. However, as of 2020, China’s median age has increased to 41 to 42, while in the United States it is only 38, and in India it is only 28, “In 2035, China’s median age will be as high as 49-50 years old, while the U.S. will be less than 42 years old and India will be 34 years old. In other words, there will be a two-generation gap between China and India,” he said.

Yi also warned that China’s overall demographic is aging rapidly. The country’s labor force started to decrease as early as 2013 and 2014, while the U.S. labor force is expected to stay stable until 2050.

Meanwhile, both the urbanization trend that has been driven by a demographic advantage for the past 30 years and real estate, the core driver of China’s economy, are both beginning to hollow out.

China’s current urbanization rate is 59.58 percent, which is about the same as Japan’s in the 1960s. Unlike Japan, where the population was very young at that time, with only 7 percent over the age of 65, China has already entered an aging society. 

Chinese people are not having more children

There is another key question leading China’s demographic crisis: Why have the Chinese stopped having children, even though the Party now allows them to have up to three? In discussion forums and comments on Chinese news sites, many people say they can’t afford to support their children because the cost of living is getting higher and higher, while wages are not increasing.

A Chinese man sleeps in front of advertising notices, placed there by parents, of people looking for partners at a marriage market in Shanghai on May 30, 2015. China's One Child Policy has created a severe gender imbalance and many other problems for the future of the country.
A Chinese man sleeps in front of advertising notices, placed there by parents, of people looking for partners at a marriage market in Shanghai on May 30, 2015. China’s One Child Policy has created a severe gender imbalance and many other problems for the future of the country. (Image: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Although China has become the world’s second-largest economy since the “reform and opening up” in 1979, the citizens have not actually gotten richer; instead, the gap between the rich and the poor has grown only wider, and no actual official figures have been released since 2010, when the gap exceeded 0.61.

On the other hand, the single adult population in China reached 240 million in 2018, with more than 77 million living alone. 2020 saw only 8.131 million registered marriages, the lowest since 2003 and only 60 percent of the 2013 peak. China is experiencing a fourth wave of increasing singles, and unlike previous waves, which could be attributed to an increase in divorces, this wave appears to be simply due to the people not getting married.

Beijing has nonetheless attempted to promote marriage and child-bearing. Lawmakers in the National People’s Congress (NPC) proposed expanding sexual education in schools to encourage pregnancy this year. Some local governments in China have also proposed programs to help career-oriented women freeze their eggs or match “leftover” women, a Chinese term referring to unmarried women over the age of 27, with rural men.

  • Jacqueline grew up in Hong Kong with a first hand view of the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to undermine democracy in the City. She was a witness to 2019's monumental anti-CCP protests before moving to Canada in 2020.