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China’s Birth Rate Hits a New Low, Population Falls by 2 Million

Pro-natalist policies started in 2016 have almost completely failed to boost China's sinking demographics
Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: January 18, 2024
This photo taken on December 13, 2016 shows nurses holding babies at the Xiyuege Centre, or "Lucky Month Home," in Beijing. Since the late 70s, strict measures in the worlds most populous country restricted most couples to only a single offspring with a system of fines for violators and even forced abortions. But concerns over an ageing population, gender imbalances and a shrinking workforce pushed authorities to end the restriction, allowing all couples a second child from January 1. (Image: GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

Just 9.02 million babies were born in the People’s Republic of China last year, making a new low for the world’s formerly most populous country and decreasing the total population count by 2 million, more than twice the decrease recorded in 2022.

According to vital statistics released by the PRC National Bureau of Statistics on Jan. 17, the number of deaths across the country was 11.1 million, making a total change of negative 2.08 million.

China’s official population is now 1.409 billion, down from 2022’s 1.425 billion.

Compared with the 9 million children born in the PRC last year, around 23 million babies were born in India, which has a population somewhat larger than China.

And the decline is speeding up. In 2022, the Chinese population fell by 800,000, the first time China recorded a crunch in people since the late 1950s, when the world’s deadliest famine — caused by communist policies — killed tens of millions.

For every 1,000 people, 8 died while just 6.39 were born in 2023, down from the birth rate of 6.77 at the end of 2022.

The decline comes despite increasing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda urging young couples to marry and have children, as well as the regime’s hopes for a post-pandemic economic boom.

Beijing’s newest figures, when taken at face value, show that China’s total fertility rate — the average number of children that can be expected from each woman — has fallen to just 1.0, one of the lowest in the world. Last year the reported TFR was 1.1.

Some have called into question the veracity of the NBS’ demographic statistics, particularly the death rate.

Political analyst Cai Shenkun noted on Twitter that according to inadvertently disclosed cremation figures from a certain location in Zhejiang Province, China’s actual population may have decreased by around 8 million or even more in 2023. Distorted population statistics inevitably lead to errors and confusion in economic decision-making.

On top of the heavy toll that the novel coronavirus pandemic took on China starting in 2019, a new wave of mysterious pneumonia and other lung ailments struck the country in late 2023, likely resulting in another round of deaths.

Encouraging births harder than enforcing abortions

The CCP’s new pro-natalist policies, which started in 2016 under leader Xi Jinping, have almost completely failed to boost China’s demographics.

Mao Zedong, the first leader of Communist China, once famously claimed that population growth was something that could be turned on or off at will, according to the government’s needs.

In 1980, fearing overpopulation, the CCP imposed a one-child policy upon most of the country, creating a massive family planning bureaucracy to ensure, often using brutal force, that women were not having “extra” children. The regime boasted that 400 million births were prevented by the policy through abortions and the ban itself.

But Xi’s efforts to reverse the one-child policy have fallen flat. Rising costs of living and shifting cultural expectations have made it difficult for couples to get married, buy homes, or support their family, which in many cases includes two sets of aging parents.

The entry of hundreds of millions of Chinese women into the workforce in recent decades has also stymied the birthrate, as decreasing overall wages means that for typical married couples, both parents must hold jobs to afford a family — but women are in practice forced to choose between children and careers. The rise of feminist ideology and consumerism has also upended the traditional role of women as wives and mothers.

Further compounding the situation is the skewed gender ratio of China’s population — another deleterious effect of the one-child policy. Many parents opted to have sons who can carry on the family name rather than keep daughters, leading to an excess of tens of millions of young men.

In 2023, the overall gender ratio was 105 men and boys to 100 women and girls, with the difference becoming starker the younger the population cohort.

According to data from the China Population Association, the normal sex ratio at birth in China should be between 103-107. In 2021, it fell to 108.3, approaching the upper limit of the normal range. The sex ratio at birth in 2022 was 111.1.

Marriage in decline

Young Chinese posting online have widely panned the government’s calls to increase the birthrate, with many viewing these as empty rhetoric in the face of heavy economic burdens, the CCP’s habitual corruption and debauchery, and its previous promotion of population control.

Along with the birth rate, the numbers of new marriages and firstborn children have also continued to fall.

According to the statistics, the number of first-child births was 4.4 million, significantly lower than the number of recently registered marriages, indicating an increasing reluctance among people to have children.

In 2019, the number of marriages in China fell below 10 million pairs, dropping to below 9 million pairs in 2020, below 8 million in 2021, and dipping under 7 million in 2022.

The number of registered marriages in 2022 decreased by 803,000 pairs, a 10.5 percent decline compared to the previous year. Over the past nine years, since the peak in 2013, the number of marriages in China has fallen by 49.3 percent, nearly half.

For Chinese men looking to marry legitimately, they often have to provide home ownership, a car, and pay a heavy bride price to their in-laws, placing massive burdens on a group already struggling under China’s poor economy.

Bride trafficking, both within and from outside China, particularly from North Korea, Vietnam, and other parts of Southeast Asia has become common in underdeveloped regions.