Update: China’s population grew in 2020, statistics authority says, contrary to FT report
China’s population to decline ‘as early as 2022,’ demographers say, refuting FT report
Published: Apr 28, 2021 10:29 PM Updated: Apr 29, 2021 03:29 PM
People walk to shop at the Chuhehan Street in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province on Sunday. The city announced to disburse 500 million yuan ($71 million) worth of

People walk to shop at the Chuhehan Street in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province. Photo: Li Hao/GT

China's population continued to grow in 2020, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Thursday. The statement came after an earlier Financial Times report claiming the country's population began to shrink. 

Specific data will be released in the bulletin of seventh national census, the bureau said. However, the release date for the result of the seventh national census remains unknown, Chinese media Yicai reported, quoting the National Bureau of Statistics

China's population is likely to start to decline as early as 2022, ending a five-decade trend of growth, and China may adopt major policy adjustments such as fully lifting birth restrictions and encouraging more births at that point, Chinese demographers said, ahead of the release of results from the once-a-decade national census.

Their comments refuted a story published in the Financial Times (FT) on Tuesday, which claimed that China's population census is expected to show the country's first population decline since 1949. 

The FT altered its headline on Wednesday, saying it would be the first decline "in five decades" instead of the previous wording of "since 1949."

That, however, was still not agreed to by Chinese demographers, who said that the results of the seventh national population census -- which covered the total population up to 2020 -- is extremely unlikely to indicate that the population began to shrink last year.

Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert and senior researcher from the Center for China and Globalization, told the Global Times on Wednesday that "the FT's headline was incorrect" as there was no evidence that China's population started to decline in 2020.

Even if some experts estimated that China's population at the end of 2020 was less than 1.4 billion, the total population recorded at the end of 2019, it did not mean China's population had started to decline but more likely was a statistical error.

The population statistics reported annually by the National Bureau of Statistics are based on a very small sample, but the once-a-decade population census is conducted door-to-door, meaning the results of the national census are more reliable than the annual statistics, Huang said. 

China on November 1, 2020, started its seventh national population count, with about 7 million census takers going door-to-door to document demographic changes in the world's most populous country.

Huang and several other Chinese demographers said that although China's actual population probably didn't start falling last year, the population growth rate has been falling for years, and so China's population may actually reach a peak within a year or two before starting to decline. 

He Yafu, an independent demographer, told the Global Times that the gap between the number of deaths and newborns in recent years had become smaller, and deaths may outnumber births starting in 2022, which would mean that the population would shrink from that point.

In any case, China experienced population declines in 1960 and 1961, so any decline in a year or two would not be "first decline since 1949," as the FT reported on Tuesday, experts said. 

China is bound to see a decline in its total population in the coming years, but based on previously released birth rate data, it is highly unlikely that the just-completed seventh census will show a decline in the total population, Lu Jiehua, a professor of demographics at Peking University, told the Global Times on Wednesday. 

However, Chinese analysts said that the results of the seventh census, which will be released amid the grim assumption that the country's population is about to start falling as early as next year, will serve as an important reference for China's population policy adjustment, which may come in the next year or two. 

He Yafu said that China's policy-makers may make major changes and fully lift birth restrictions and encourage births as early as 2022. 

A decline in the population would lead to a drop in the labor force and a reduction in innovation ability, and yields from investment would fall, increasing the financial pressure for retirees. All of this would eventually cause a longer-term economic downturn, experts said.

Internationally, Japan is dubbed as the "grayest nation," as nearly 30 percent of its people are over 65, and the country's population began to decline 10 years ago. Japan's economic growth has been hovering around 1 percent for years. 

Fully lifting birth restrictions will not be enough to avert a fall in China's total population, or prevent China from becoming another Japan, Huang said.

Instead, China should come up with more measures to encourage births, such as subsidizing couples who choose to have more than one baby.