China’s census reveals the depth of the demographic challenge

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After six years of marriage, Haley Zhang has no plans to have children. The 33-year-old Shanghai marketing manager worries about the impact of her parents on her career and the high cost of raising children.

Zhang said: “My supervisor has made it clear that I must choose an incumbent position with growth potential and a second-class position with more time to spend with my family.” “There is no room for maneuver.”

Zhang’s reluctance to have one child, let alone two children, is an event that the Chinese government has been encouraging since 2015, which highlights the demographic challenges facing the country.

The release of China’s ten-year census last week triggered a national debate about whether the world’s most populous country is too slow to avoid a crisis.

The 2011-20 census shows that the population is changing The slowest speed in decades. The number of births last year fell to only 12 million, the lowest number since China emerged from an emerging country in the early 1960s. Catastrophic famine.

Ning Jizhe, director of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, resisted calls from experts, the public and the People’s Bank of China that the family planning restrictions should be completely removed. Existing policy Encouraging most families to have two children is enough. He said: “As long as we formulate support policies, China’s birth potential can be realized.”

The National Bureau of Statistics pointed out that China’s population was estimated at 1.4 billion in 2019, while the official figure for 2020 has increased by 11.7 million.

This Reported by the Financial Times Last month, the government prepared to report its first annual year-on-year decline in 60 years. According to people familiar with the census study, preliminary estimates show that the population figure in 2020 will drop to at least 1.37 billion, but it will be revised upwards.

Ernan Cui, an analyst at the research firm Gavekal Dragonomics, said there are “some obvious inconsistencies” in the official data. She said: “It is even possible that the actual population will reach its peak in 2020, ten years earlier than originally planned.”

Sensitive data delay

As officials sorted out the data, the release of the census was delayed for more than a month. China’s official population figures are very sensitive because it determines everything from family planning policies to fiscal expenditures, and only publicly disclosed after government departments reach a consensus.

Many ministries and regions are seeking larger population figures to justify a higher budget, but the People’s Bank of China warns that such estimates are coming soon. After the postponement of the census data, the central bank argued in a report released last month that the birth rate has been consistently overestimated. It said: “We must be aware that China’s demographic situation has been reversed.”

Bar graph showing the number of newborns (m).  .  .And the country’s birth rate has dropped sharply

Chinese officials have admitted that China has little to do to reverse the trend of an aging population. Goldman Sachs analysts pointed out that in the past decade, the country’s “elderly dependency ratio” (the ratio of the population over 65 to the working-age group) has increased from 11% to 20%.

The country’s fertility rate, the average number of children a woman usually has, is only 1.3, which is lower than the US’s 1.7, or even Japan’s 1.4, and the population decline is a reality.

The worries of Zhang and other women indicate that abolishing the family planning policy is not enough.Like millions of people in Chinese cities, she lacks Local account registration, Or hukou, Which will make her children eligible to receive government-sponsored schools in Shanghai. Zhang will have to send them to expensive private daycare centers. She said: “There is no social safety net that enables women to have children.” “It is not enough to simply relax birth control.”

Bert Hoffman, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, said he expects China’s population “will begin to decline.” [this decade], with [do] So in the second half of this century”.

But he added that “Demographics is not GDP” and pointed out that China has been dealing with a shrinking labor force since 2012 while still achieving Strong economic growth.

Between 2010 and 2020, China’s working-age population has fallen by more than 3% to 968 million, but higher education levels, technological advancement and adjustments to the retirement age will help increase productivity.

Hoffman said: “In a sense, China’s population trajectory should be welcomed.” “Half of the current population will greatly reduce the burden on China’s local environment, water resources and limited land.”

However, many analysts believe that the government needs a greater sense of urgency. Huang Wenzheng of the Beijing-based think tank China and Globalization Center said that official population growth has brought a “false sense of security” to the authorities.

He added: “The latest census has sent a message that there is no need for a major policy change.” “That will create a time bomb.”

Quality issues

Skeptics also pointed out the contradiction between the annual data set of the National Bureau of Statistics and the 10-year census.

The 2020 census shows that as of the end of last year, there were 255 million people under the age of 14 in China. But the total annual number of births in 2006-20 was 239 million, a difference of 16 million.

Zhuang Bo, the chief China economist of the research group TS Lombard, said: “This is against common sense.” “The government must adjust the numbers drastically to make the demographics consistent.”

The Chinese government has not announced the official death toll in 2020, which may reveal the impact of the coronavirus pandemic © Aly Song / Reuters

This inconsistency is common, and officials argue that the census figures are more accurate. For example, the 2010 Census found that the number of people under the age of 14 was 38 million fewer than the annual survey.

The National Bureau of Statistics has not reported the official death toll in 2020, which may reveal the damage caused. Coronavirus pandemicIt peaked in China at the beginning of last year.

Controversy over the quality of China’s population data has exacerbated concerns that the government’s population policy is based on inaccurate forecasts.

When the State Council announced the national long-term population development plan in 2016, its 2020 target included a population of 1.42 billion and a fertility rate of 1.8, much higher than the current 1.3.

“The important thing is not whether the population of China exceeds 1.4 billion, and the number exceeds 1.4 billion. [last year], But the decline in the birth rate may continue into the next few years. “Huang said.

Supplementary report by Liu Xinning in Beijing

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