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China’s Population Crisis May Be Its Achilles’ Heel

From Wikimedia Commons

If you randomly select five people across the globe, statistically, one of them will be Chinese. According to the Seventh National Census conducted in 2020, China has 1,411,778,724 inhabitants, making it the most populous country in the world. But even with its enormous population—which surpasses those of Europe, North America, and Oceania combined—China is currently experiencing a population crisis. Since implementing a one-child policy in 1982, China’s birth rate has steadily declined from 1.4 percent in 1982 to just 0.53 percent in 2020. As a result, the country’s population is aging faster than that of almost any other country in the world. By 2050, it is estimated that one-third of the Chinese population will be over the age of retirement. Meanwhile, in Japan, a nation known for its ‘super-aged’ society, only 28.7 percent of the population is over 65. Even as Beijing pursues policies to boost its birth rate, the country’s aging population could present challenges in the form of labor-force shortages, increased health care expenditures, and pension shortfalls.

When the country’s first comprehensive, nationwide census was conducted in 1953, China had a population of 601 million. Influenced by Soviet population policy, Chinese leaders, especially Mao Zedong, considered population growth a sign of prosperity and thus encouraged high fertility in China. Eleven years later, when the Second National Census took place, China’s population had grown to 723 million. Even for a country as vast and populous as China, population growth of more than 120 million people in a little over a decade left questions as to how the young republic would manage the skyrocketing domestic demand for food, education, and medical care. As early as 1957, scholars in China, led by prominent economist Ma Yunchu, began to sound the alarm on China’s rapid, unrestricted population growth. Their voices were heard by Beijing, but with continuous political turmoil in China, early attempts to implement population control ended in failure.

By the time the Cultural Revolution came to an end with Mao’s death in 1976, the issue of overpopulation could no longer be ignored. In 1982, the Third National Census showed that China’s population had skyrocketed to more than one billion people, indicating growth of over 40 percent in merely 18 years. The population boom showed no signs of slowing down: In the early 1980s, “two-thirds of the population [of China] was under the age of 30 years, and the baby boomers of the 1950s and 1960s were entering their reproductive years.” Rightfully concerned about China’s rapid population growth, the post-Mao leadership led by Deng Xiaoping made population control a national policy priority and a constitutional duty

China’s Family Planning Policy, commonly referred to as the one-child policy, was the largest and most ambitious population planning campaign in human history. The policy limited each household to only one child and encouraged women to postpone childbearing until they were at least 25 years old. Those who followed the policy would be rewarded with certain privileges in the welfare system, while those who disobeyed would face financial repercussions. For public servants, for example, having more than one child would immediately result in expulsion from the civil administration.

Not all Chinese citizens were treated equally under the policy’s regulations. The policy was specifically targeted at Han Chinese, who comprised over 90 percent of the country’s population. Different rules applied to ethnic minorities: Mongolian Chinese households, for example, were allowed two children, and virtually no restrictions were imposed upon Tibetan Chinese.

Through legal, economic, and administrative measures, the one-child policy affected more than one billion people. Such a degree of population control had tremendous impacts on Chinese society. The strong kin lineage and praise of fertility in Chinese tradition were uprooted as the large extended family broke down into smaller nuclear families. Many parents suffered deep psychological trauma when they lost their only child, human trafficking became increasingly common in rural areas, and gender bias against girls led to higher numbers of abortion and incidents of female infanticide. However, setting aside its social impacts, China’s population control measures were hugely successful at slowing population growth. According to a 2013 article published by the Communist Party of China (CPC), the population control program had prevented some 400 million births since its initiation in the 1970s, “remov[ing] the fuse of a great population explosion.”

Even as research has proven the efficacy of the one-child policy, in recent years, declining population growth in China has increasingly been regarded as a threat to the nation’s prosperity. According to the Sixth National Census conducted in 2010, while the country’s population had modest growth of 5.84 percent over a ten year period, the number of children under the age of 14 had decreased by 67 million. At the same time, the share of people over 60 in the entire population had risen from 10.33 percent to 13.26 percent. In 2010, China’s overall fertility rate was 1.63 children per woman, far below the replacement rate of 2.1 at which a country’s population stays at the same level. Put another way, China had far fewer newborns than in previous eras and was aging faster than almost any other country in modern history. If this trend continues, China will not only transform into an aging society, but will also face a potential overall decline in its population—a very bad sign for a growing economy

China’s population growth helped lift the nation out of poverty to become the world’s second-largest economy; but now its population control measures threaten future growth. With a shrinking number of newborns, China will inevitably face a great labor shortage in twenty years, detrimental as its economy will remain manufacturing-driven in the foreseeable future. The population crisis also raises issues related to pension and healthcare. Chinese life expectancy has grown from 65 years in 1978 to 77 years in 2021, and this higher life expectancy creates a substantial fiscal burden on China’s welfare system. Unlike most pension systems in the world, China’s state pension system mainly consists of contributions from the current labor force rather than relying on the savings from the previous generations who lived under Mao’s planned economy. While “rob Peter to pay Paul” is functioning now as China’s economy continues to grow rapidly, this mechanism is not likely to work in the future when a small number of youth will need to support a much larger aging population with a high life expectancy. Similar problems exist in the healthcare system. In 2021, the Chinese Healthcare System, which covers more than 95 percent of the Chinese population, had a 6.9 percent increase in its income and a 12 percent increase in its expenditure. The state healthcare system still has considerable savings, but the yearly gap is getting smaller.

As early as 2008, Beijing had started to reconsider the one-child policy; Zhao Baige, the vice-minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, stated at a press conference that the population crisis “has become a big issue among decision-makers” and “we [the Chinese government] want incrementally to have this changed.” As Zhao said, it took several steps for Beijing to alter its population control policies. Starting in 2011, China allowed parents to have two children as long as both parents were the only child; two years later, the policy was extended to families where one parent was the only child. And finally, on December 27, 2015, the National People’s Congress brought an end to the one-child policy and issued full implementation of the two-child policy, permitting two children per family without any qualifications. To reduce the expense of raising a child, more than a dozen measures—including tax reductions, childcare and primary education investments, and law reforms—accompanied the policy changes. Optimistically, a baby boom was anticipated as restrictions were lifted, but the two-child policy had virtually no effect in confronting the population crisis. China did immediately experience a small net growth of 1,300,000 in the number of newborns in 2016, but in the following year, that number dropped dramatically. Many experts now believe China’s population will peak in the next five years, and a decline is right around the corner. As Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, said, “The year 2021 will go down in Chinese history as the year that China last saw population growth in its long history.”

On May 31, 2021, President Xi Jinping called a special meeting of Chinese Communist Party leaders. Sitting by the round table were all 25 members of the CPC Politburo, the nation’s top decision-makers, and their sole purpose that day was to find a solution for China’s population crisis. At precisely 7:00 pm, the meeting’s communique was broadcast on national television. “Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC,” the communique went, “the party’s Central Committee has made major, decisive decisions in accordance with the nation’s population situation and achieved positive results…[to] Further optimizing the maternity policy, a policy will be implemented so each couple can have three children.” After the two-child policy’s ineffectiveness had been proven over five years of application, Beijing had decided that allowing one more child per family would be the most appropriate solution to its population crisis.

While Beijing’s one-child policy is inarguably the primary cause of China’s population crisis, it is worth considering how economic and social factors may have contributed to China’s population plateau and eventual decline. Consider that many companies in China maintain a notorious 996 work culture in the workspace in which employees are expected to work from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, six days a week. Is it surprising that people are reluctant to have children while working 72 hours per week? Consider that the average annual income for young Chinese citizens is $4481.57 and it costs an average of $76,629 to raise a child to the age of 18. Under these economic conditions, is it not reasonable that young middle-class Chinese citizens are reluctant to have a child, let alone multiple? Before it can escape the severe consequences of its population crisis, Beijing must first address the political, economic, and social crises that have accumulated over the past four decades of China’s development.