New census shows labor force advantage remains as China grows bigger at a slower pace

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The much-anticipated answer to a very important question came on May 11 as the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced the results of the seventh national population census.

In the past decade, China's population growth slowed down, yet remained steady, according to NBS Commissioner Ning Jizhe. In 2020, the total population on the mainland was more than 1.41 billion, approximately accounting for 18 percent of the world's total.

"China is still the world's most populous country," Ning said at a press conference. The population is predicted to remain above 1.4 billion for a period of time, he added.

The census, a roughly once-in-a-decade event, kicked off on November 1, 2020, and information was collected door to door by approximately 7 million census takers. According to the NBS, an estimated 0.05 percent was left out of the census by error and was not added back into the count.

Before the release of the census results, there was speculation that China's population had already started to dwindle.

"China's population will peak in the future, but it remains uncertain as to exactly when it will happen," Ning said.

Population profile 

"Population has been a long-term and strategic issue of overall importance. The seventh census has offered a clear understanding of the size, structure and spatial distribution of China's population, and accurately reflected the current trends of demographic changes, yielding a lot of valuable information," Ning said.

In the past decade, 72.06 million persons were added to the population, translating to an increase of 5.38 percent, or an average annual growth rate of 0.53 percent, slightly lower than the 0.57 percent in the decade before 2010.

The census also showed that the population got significantly better educated, its structure had changed, and it got more mobile and urbanized than a decade ago.

The change in the age composition is noteworthy. Those aged 14 or under accounted for 17.95 percent of the total, up 1.35 percentage points from a decade ago; those aged 15-59 made up 63.35 percent, down 6.79 percentage points; and those at 60 and above were 18.7 percent, up by 5.44 percentage points.

Ning said it shows that the adjustments of the family planning policy by relaxing birth control had produced positive results. However, the degree of population aging had also increased.

The male-to-female ratio at birth dropped 6.8 points to 111.3, showing improvement. The overall male-to-female ratio remained more or less the same at 105.2.

Households also got smaller, with the average size dropping from 3.1 persons to 2.62 in the past decade. 

The population has become more concentrated in economically developed areas and city clusters. Compared with 2010, the proportion in the eastern region increased 2.15 percentage points, in the central region down 0.79 percentage point, in the western region up 0.22 percentage point, and in the northeastern region down 1.2 percentage points. The migrant population increased 69.73 percent to 376 million. The urban population went up 14.21 percentage points to 63.89 percent of the total.

The ethnic minority population increased 10.26 percent, a rate almost doubling that of the Han ethnic group. However, the latter still accounted for 91.11 percent of the total population.

Socio-economic implications 

As to the social and economic ramifications of the demographic changes, Ning said they should be looked at dialectically.

Currently, the population is still large, and the balance between it and natural resources is still tight, he said. Many problems related to overpopulation still exist, such as environmental deterioration, traffic congestion, skyrocketing housing prices, difficulties for some people to get jobs and worries about food insecurity.

But speaking on the positive side of a large population, Ning said the super large-scale domestic market will exist for a long time, labor resources will remain rich, and the demographic dividend will continue to be there.

The census showed there were 880 million working-age people, whose average age was 38.8 years. "They are still young and promising," Ning remarked, adding that the U.S. also recently released its latest census data, showing the average age of its working-age population was 38, almost the same.

In the past decade, the working population on the Chinese mainland shrank by 40 million; however, overall, "the employment pressure is still not to be underestimated," Zeng Yuping, chief methodologist of the NBS, said.

The good news is that China's working population has got better educated, with the census showing their average years of education increased from 9.67 years to 10.75 years. Zeng said the higher educational attainment can further promote the transformation of economic development, upgrade of the industrial structure, improvement of total factor productivity, and sustainable, coordinated and healthy development of the population, economy and society.

Ning said as the working-age population is gradually dwindling, the economic structure and sci-tech development priorities should be adjusted to adapt to the change.

Mechanization and artificial intelligence technology have been widely adopted in China, though not necessarily driven by a labor shortage, greatly improving labor productivity and saving labor.

As for the increase in the elderly population, Ning sees both challenges and opportunities. He said while population aging will reduce labor supply and increase the burden of care and basic public service supply, it helps foster the "silver economy."

Policy effect 

A big population base, the positive effect of the adjustments of the family planning policy and improving life expectancy all contributed to the slow and steady population growth, according to Ning.

The family planning policy was introduced in the 1970s to contain population explosion. Since the 1970s, the country's total fertility rate, births per woman over a lifetime, fell to below the replacement level of 2.1 from a peak of more than 6, according to official statistics. Replacement level fertility will lead to zero population growth only if mortality rates remain constant and migration has no effect. 

The family planning policy has been gradually eased over the past two decades. Since 2002, couples have been given the green light to have two children if both are the only child in their respective families. Couples where one is an only child can have two children since 2013, and since 2015, every married couple can have two children.

Ning said the two-child policy for all couples has been effective. The census showed that in 2016 and 2017, the number of live births exceeded 18 million and 17 million respectively, 2 million and 1 million more than the time right before the implementation of the policy.

In 2016, statistics from the National Health and Family Planning Commission (now the National Health Commission) showed that the total fertility rate in that year rose above 1.7.

Since 2018, the number of newborns has declined. The census showed that in 2020, 12 million babies were born. "This number was not small," Ning said, adding that the relaxed policy led to more than 10 million additional "second children" in the past decade.

However, the total fertility rate in 2020 was 1.3. "This is mainly due to the decrease in the number of women of childbearing age and the gradual weakening of the two-child policy," Ning explained. He said from 2020, the COVID-19 epidemic increased uncertainty and people's worries about hospital delivery risks, further reducing couples' willingness to have a baby. 

He stressed that the level of fertility is affected by both the birth policy and economic, social and cultural factors, with the influence of the latter gradually increasing.

Recent years have seen a declining marriage rate and an increasing divorce rate, people delaying getting married and having children, and couples reluctant to have more children due to the rising cost it entails.

With the development of the economy and society, especially industrialization and modernization, low birth rate has become a common challenge for most developed countries, Ning said.

The U.S. census showed there were 3.6 million live births in 2020, down 4 percent year on year, and the fertility rate was 1.73. Last year was the sixth consecutive year that the number of births declined, and also the year with the lowest number of newborns in the U.S. since 1979.

In Japan and most West European countries, the fertility rate has been below the replacement level for decades, according to the UN.

As of 2019, close to half of all people globally lived in a country or area where the total fertility rate was below 2.1 births, according to the World Population Prospects published by the UN. The global fertility rate, which fell from 3.2 births per woman in 1990 to 2.5 in 2019, is projected to decline further to 2.2 in 2050.

The report projected that the world's population would grow to 8.5 billion in 2030, and further to 9.7 billion in 2050. The growth will be uneven, with the population of sub-Saharan Africa projected to double by 2050 whereas the combined populations of Europe and North America to increase only 2 percent.

China's population is projected to decrease by 31.4 million, or around 2.2 percent, between 2019 and 2050.

The UN predicted that around 2027, India will overtake China as the world's most populous country. In 2019, India's population of 1.39 billion was the second largest.

Ning said the population growth slowdown in China calls for measures promoting a long-term balanced development of the population. The 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) also states that efforts should be made to boost fertility to a moderate level, and reduce the cost of child bearing and rearing.

He added that previous NBS surveys showed the average number of children Chinese women of childbearing age would like to have is 1.8. As long as corresponding supporting measures are taken, this rate can be reached.

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