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May 10, 2021, 10:37 p.m. EDT

China reports population growth closer to zero in 2020

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By Associated Press

BEIJING — China’s population growth is falling closer to zero, government data showed Tuesday, adding to strains on an aging society with a shrinking workforce as fewer couples have children.

The population rose by 72 million over the past 10 years to 1.411 billion in 2020, the National Bureau of Statistics announced after a once-a-decade census. It said annual growth averaged 0.53%, down by 0.04% from the previous decade.

Chinese leaders have enforced birth limits since 1980 to restrain population growth but worry the number of working-age people is falling too fast, disrupting efforts to create a prosperous economy. They have eased birth limits, but couples are put off by high costs, cramped housing and job discrimination faced by mothers.

Reflecting the issue’s sensitivity, the statistics agency took the unusual step last month of announcing the population grew in 2020 but gave no total. That looked like an effort to calm companies and investors after The Financial Times reported the census might have found a surprise decline.

China, along with Thailand and some other developing Asian countries that are aging fast, faces what economists call the challenge of whether it can grow rich before it grows old.

China’s working age population of people aged 15 to 59 is declining after hitting a 2011 peak of 925 million. That is boosting wages as companies compete for workers. But it might hamper efforts to develop new industries and self-sustaining economic growth based on consumer spending instead of trade and investment.

Thursday’s announcement gave no details of births last year, but earlier data showed the annual number falling since 2016.

“We are more concerned about the fast decline in the working-age population,” said Lu Jiehua, a professor of population studies at Peking University.

The working-age population was three-quarters of the total in 2011 but will fall to just above half by 2050, according to Lu. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security said in 2016 that group might shrink to 700 million by then.

“If the population gets too old, it will be impossible to solve the problem through immigration,” said Lu. “It needs to be dealt with at an early stage.”

Young couples who might want to have a child face daunting challenges. Many share crowded apartments with their parents. Child care is expensive and maternity leave short. Most single mothers are excluded from medical insurance and social welfare payments. Some women worry giving birth could hurt their careers.

“First, at the interview, if you are married and childless, they may ask, do you have plans to have a kid?” said He Yiwei, who is preparing to return from the United States after obtaining a master’s degree.

“And then when you have a kid, you take pregnancy leave, but will you still have this position after you take the leave?” said He. “Relative to men, when it comes to work, women have to sacrifice more.”

Japan, Germany and some other rich countries face the same challenge of supporting aging populations with fewer workers. But they can draw on decades of investment in factories, technology and foreign assets.

China is a middle-income country with labor-intensive farming and manufacturing. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting Chinese economic growth of 8.4% this year following a rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling Communist Party wants to double output per person from 2020 levels by 2035, which would require annual growth of about 4.7%.

The ruling party is making changes, but it isn’t clear whether any are big enough to ease strains on an underfunded retirement system.

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