4 first-tier cities in China record temporary population declines
Metropolitans retain gravity for talent, focus on quality development
Published: May 15, 2023 11:50 PM
Babies participate in a baby crawling contest at a shopping center in Daxing District, Beijing, capital of China, Sep 13, 2020. Photo:Xinhua

Babies participate in a baby crawling contest at a shopping center in Daxing District, Beijing, capital of China, Sep 13, 2020. Photo:Xinhua


China's latest census data show that all four first-tier cities in the mainland - Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen - recorded population declines last year, the first time in decades.

Demographers pointed out that the population decline in Guangzhou and Shenzhen is more likely a short-term phenomenon, influenced by unexpected factors such as COVID-19 restrictions. The gravitation of large cities for population will remain in the near future, and population quality will replace quantity as the new motivation of growth in large cities.

Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province, on Friday released the yearly census data, showing the city's permanent resident population in 2022 standing at 18.73 million, a decline of 76,500 from 2021, which is the first decline seen in the city for 20 years.

The decline in Shenzhen, also in Guangdong, is noteworthy, as the city has never seen a decline in population since it was established in the late 1970s. The city's statistics bureau announced on May 8 that the permanent resident population in 2022 was 17.66 million, 19,000 lower than in 2021. 

The city's permanent resident population had increased by more than 7 million in the previous decade.

Beijing and Shanghai also witnessed population declines in 2022. According to official data, Shanghai's permanent resident population decreased by 135,400 in 2022, while Beijing's population decreased by 43,000.

Of the four first-tier cities, it is no surprise that Beijing and Shanghai have seen annual declines in their populations, independent demographer He Yafu told the Global Times on Monday. 

He noted that Beijing and Shanghai's population had declined for several years, as both imposed restrictions on population size in recent years. Guangzhou and Shenzhen, on the other hand, have rarely if ever seen such a situation.

Guangzhou authorities attributed the rare decline in the population to the outflow of people due to the impact of the epidemic in 2022. "At the end of 2022, amid China's population decline of 850,000 nationwide, Guangzhou suffered the most severe COVID-19 epidemic hit since 2020 ahead of the Chinese New Year.

"A large number of workers from outside the city chose to return home early," a city official explained in the release. "The partial return of the non-local population in a short period caused a phased contraction in the size of the city's resident population."

That statement was affirmed by demographers. In addition, analysts point to the barriers to settlement and the cost of living in first-tier cities as important reasons why many non-locals chose to leave these large cities.

Nonetheless, He noted that the population declines in these two large cities do not appear to be a long-term trend, but rather a phase.

"Guangzhou and Shenzhen are expected to return to population growth in 2023 as the epidemic winds down," he said. "But Beijing and Shanghai are unlikely to resume growth in their populations in the near future because of tight controls on population size."

The latest data released by Guangzhou confirms this prediction. According to data from telecoms carriers, as of the end of February, Guangzhou's outflow population in December 2022 had largely returned to Guangzhou, with a return rate of 94.32 percent.

With the national population declining, more and more cities will see their population shrink, the demographer said. In the long run, however, the overall trend of population concentration in big cities will persist.

"Big cities have more job opportunities and better prospects for development, which makes them naturally more attractive to residents of small and medium-sized cities and rural areas. The population in small and medium-sized cities and rural areas will continue to decline in the long run."

Observers pointed out that as the structure of China's population development continued to change, the dynamics of urban development shifted from population quantity to population quality. For example, many second-tier cities have introduced policies to attract talent, and these are the cities that have recorded the most population growth in the past few years.

In the new situation of China's population development, China's "demographic dividend" has not disappeared, as the "talent dividend" is being formed. Looking to the future, as the quality of the population improves, the advantages of population resources will be effectively brought into play, which will further promote the transformation of economic development, said the People's Daily in its editorial on Monday.

More major cities with previously tighter population policies are also making efforts to better equip their non-local populations to live in these cities on a long-term basis. Guangzhou, for example, has begun to attract more people from outside the city to settle through household registration and talent introduction, and thus become long-term Guangzhou residents.

In the future, China's large cities should further relax their household settlement policies and lower the threshold for settlement in order to attract more people to settle down and work, He suggests.