China braces for historic demographic shift, accelerated by COVID traumas

China braces for historic demographic shift, accelerated by COVID traumas
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HONG KONG, Jan 13 (Reuters) – Living under China’s strict COVID-19 restrictions for the past three years had caused Zhang Qi enough stress and uncertainty to consider not having children in the country.

When China abruptly dismantled its “zero COVID” regime last month to allow the virus to spread freely, the scales tipped toward a definitive “No,” the Shanghai-based e-commerce executive said.

Stories about mothers and babies unable to see doctors because medical facilities were overwhelmed with COVID infections were the final straw for Zhang.

“I heard that giving birth in a public hospital is horrible. I really wouldn’t consider having a baby,” the 31-year-old said.

A glimpse of the scars caused by the pandemic on China’s already bleak demographic picture may come to light when it reports its official population data for 2022 on January 1. 17

Some demographers expect China’s population in 2022 to record its first drop since the Great Famine in 1961, a profound change with far-reaching implications for the global economy and world order.

New births for 2022 are expected to fall to record lows, falling below 10 million from last year’s 10.6 million babies, which were already 11.5% lower than in 2020.

“With this historic turn, China has entered a long and irreversible process of population decline, the first time in China and in world history,” said Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California.

“In less than 80 years, China’s population size could be reduced by 45%. Then it will be a China unrecognizable to the world.”

Reuters charts

China’s total population increased by 480,000 to 1.4126 billion in 2021. The United Nations predicts that China’s population will begin to decline this year as India overtakes it as the world’s most populous country.

UN experts forecast that China’s population will shrink by 109 million by 2050, more than triple the decline of their previous forecast in 2019.

While nine of the world’s 10 most populous nations are experiencing declines in fertility, China’s 2022 fertility rate of 1.18 was the lowest and well below the OECD standard of 2.1 for a population stable.

The country, which imposed a one-child policy from 1980 to 2015, officially acknowledged that it was on the brink of a demographic recession last year, when the National Health Commission said the population could start to decline before 2025.

In October, President Xi Jinping said the government would enact more policies to boost the country’s birth rate.

Reuters charts


Since 2021, the authorities have introduced measures including tax deductions, longer maternity leave, improved health insurance, and housing subsidies to incentivize people to have more babies.

Its impact so far has been mediocre.

Online searches for baby carriages on China’s Baidu fell 17% in 2022 and 41% since 2018, while searches for baby bottles fell by more than a third since 2018. By contrast, searches for baby homes elderly multiplied by eight last year.

The opposite is happening in India, where Google Trends shows a 15% year-over-year increase in baby bottle searches in 2022, while crib searches have nearly quintupled.

Reuters charts

The financial burden of educating children, some of the world’s most stressful university entrance exams, and daycare enrollment of only about 5.5% for children under 3, well below the average for the OECD, are key factors affecting the fertility rate, the YuWa Population Research think tank said this month.

The economic impact of an aging society will be significant.

Demographer Yi Fuxian expects the proportion of people aged 65 and over to reach 37% in 2050, up from 14% last year and 5% in 1980. Its workforce will not replenish at the same rate due to declining jobs. births.

“Rapid aging is slowing China’s economy, reducing revenue and increasing government debt… China is getting old before it gets rich.”

Murphy, a 22-year-old student at the Communication University of China in Beijing, said she would be unable to afford a child due to the slowing economy.

The lockdowns cooled the economy to one of its lowest growth rates in nearly half a century last year.

“The pandemic reinforced my point of view,” said Murphy, who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons. “Even if I could pay my own living expenses, why would I want babies?”

Additional reporting by Liz Lee, Joe Cash, and the Beijing Writing; Sophie Yu in Shanghai and Angel Woo in Hong Kong; Edited by Marius Zaharia and Lincoln Feast.

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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