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 is 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.
Indeed, data released on Tuesday showed that the Chinese economy last year had one of its worst performances since 1976, the year Mao died.
Over the last four decades, China emerged as an economic powerhouse and the world’s factory floor. The country’s evolution 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 living longer 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 its growth.
“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.”
Government handouts like cash for babies and tax cuts, have failed to change the underlying fact that many young Chinese people simply do not want children.
“I can’t bear the responsibility for giving birth to a life,” said Luna Zhu, 28, who lives in Beijing with her husband. Both their parents would be willing to take care of grandchildren, and she works for a state-owned enterprise that offers a good maternity leave package. Still, Ms. Zhu is not interested in motherhood.
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. China’s overall population now stands at 1.41 billion. By 2035, 400 million people in China are expected to be over 60, accounting for nearly a third of its population.
Understand the Situation in China
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.
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 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.
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 reported 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 numbers — 60,000 deaths between Dec. 8 and Jan. 12.
On Tuesday, Kang Yi, the commissioner of the National Bureau of Statistics, 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 Center 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 as the country grew wealthier. “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 three decades, 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.
These measures have not been comprehensive enough to stabilize falling birthrates or change entrenched traditional expectations of women’s roles at home, said Zheng Mu, an assistant professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore who studies fertility in China.
“When we talk about child care and the education of children, most of the time women are expected to do the work,” said Ms. Mu.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, India’s total population is poised to exceed China’s later this year, according to a recent estimate from the United Nations.
China’s decline in population would be very difficult to reverse at this stage, said Mr. O’Keefe of the University of California, Irvine.
“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.”
Many young people have cited the rising cost of parenthood — including childcare — at a time when the economy is 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. The couple have embraced a lifestyle known as “Double Income, No Kids,” a shorthand for couples in China who have decided to remain childless. 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 growing costs of raising a child and finding an apartment in a 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.
For Ms. Zhu, who got married five years ago, the pandemic has clarified her decision not to have kids.
“Especially over the past three years of the epidemic,” Ms. Zhu said, “I feel that many things are so hard.”
Li You contributed research, and Keith Bradsher contributed reporting.