KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 31, 2023 – China’s National Bureau of Statistics recently released data showing the country’s first population decline in decades. At the end of 2022, the population of mainland China stood at 1.411 billion people, down 850,000 from the previous year.

Around the world, experts called it a tipping point for a nation looking to continue an era of rapid economic expansion and boost its falling birth rate. 

University of Rhode Island demographer Melanie Brasher has studied China’s demography for years, having lived in China for two years before pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology at Duke University in 2013. She has published widely on China’s demographics, particularly concerning older adults. An associate professor of sociology, she taught a class this past fall on Population and Society in which students learned the basic concepts of population dynamics, including the demography of China.

Brasher called the news “further evidence that China waited too long to change its one-child policy” – regulations instituted in the late 1970s. The policy was eased in the 2015, when China allowed married couples to have two children.

In an interview, Brasher analyzed China’s recent population numbers.

Previous census reports have shown China’s population dropping and aging. How surprising were the data released recently by China?

It’s not a surprise in the sense that populations shrink when there are more deaths than births. China is experiencing rapid population aging, driven by rising life expectancies and dropping birth rates over recent decades. When a population ages, there are more older people in a population and that raises the death rate. At the same time, China is experiencing very low fertility, which is common across many countries in East Asia, including Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea.

What perhaps is surprising is that the Chinese government is admitting that the population is dropping, and that this is happening sooner than was predicted. This means also that China’s population has peaked and is now declining.

As a demographer and an expert on Chinese demographics, what stood out to you?

It’s further evidence that China waited too long to change its one-child policy.

Will people who read the news think this is COVID-related? COVID-19 has caused many countries around the world to have lower life expectancies in 2021 and 2022; but, by itself, it is not a cause of population aging or population decline. The demographic causes of population decline have been many years in the making.

I guess I’m also surprised by how much media attention this is getting. I wonder if it’s because many people don’t have much knowledge about demography. Perhaps there is an assumption that a country such as China (tied for most populous with India) will continue to be a very populated place, so the idea of China’s population going down comes as a shock.

What have been the driving causes of the decline? 

Along with what I said above, migration can offset or exacerbate population decline. Immigrants are more likely to be of childbearing age, which can contribute to population growth – and of course countries with more people migrating to it than out can offset population decline. This is not the case with China, which has more people leaving the country than immigrating to it.

Times of uncertainty, such as economic recessions, typically lead to temporary drops in the birth rate. The COVID-19 pandemic is another example of a time of uncertainty and economic downturn that led people to choose not to have children. In China, its very strict lockdown and zero-COVID policies made fertility rates even lower.

Another factor causing a decline in the birth rate in China is young people understanding that they will be the ones to care for their parents and grandparents. Imagine a couple, both of whom are only children, they will have to shoulder the burden of supporting and perhaps providing care for elderly parents. This is the case in China because of a lack of social welfare for older people and because of their traditional Confucian Chinese culture, which dictates that being a filial child is providing support to parents in their old age. From my own research, support for the tenets of filial piety remain strong among middle-aged adult children in China.

What does the latest population numbers mean to China economically and culturally?

Although their social safety net for older people is not as strong as other countries, China’s social welfare for older adults is paid for with taxes on working-age people. With fewer working-age people and more retirees, it becomes harder for a country to pay for these social programs. One option, that will likely be unpopular, will be to raise taxes.

The other concern is that modern economies need to grow and they need people to spend money. Fewer working-age people in China results in less spending.

China has seen this coming. In the 1980s and ‘90s, they were the world’s factory because of demographic dividend – having a lot of working-age people relative to children or older people. They are still the world’s factory. But it’s because they have more automation in their factories, producing more complex products, manufacturing that’s higher up the supply chain, to maintain their economic powerhouse status.

Culturally, it’s interesting to think about these trends of young people not wanting to form a couple or get married, and therefore they don’t have children. Why don’t young people want to have children? Concerns about economic opportunities, concerns about climate change, concerns about gender inequality – women having to sacrifice more than men in child rearing.

How can China reverse this trend?

It seems unlikely that China will reverse the trend. In recent years, they have tried incentivizing couples to have more children, but it doesn’t seem to be working. The one-child policy was in effect for more than a generation, and now it is part of the culture to have only one child. On top of that, parents invest a lot of time and effort into that one child – to secure their education, for example. Many parents can’t imagine doing that for multiple children.

While the reasons for China’s declining population may be unique, is this a problem around the globe?

Yes, many countries around the world are or soon will experience population decline, and have to try and get ahead of the problem and find creative solutions.

Many countries try to introduce family-friendly policies to encourage people to have children or have larger families. This includes things like generous parental leave policies and state-subsidized childcare. It has had varied success in different countries.

It’s also amazing to think how much population has changed over the past 70 years. In the 1960s, the concern was about the population bomb – the doubling of the world’s population from 3 billion to 6 billion in a few decades. But now, the world is dealing with a different population concern – population aging, ultra-low fertility, and shrinking working-age populations in many countries.

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