BEIJING: China's population growth in the decade to 2020 slumped to the least in official records dating back to the 1950s, fuelling pressure on Beijing to ramp up incentives to couples to have more children and avert an irreversible decline.
With growth having slowed ever since a one-child policy was introduced in the late 1970s, the results of the country's 2020 census published on Tuesday (May 11) showed the population of mainland China increased 5.38 per cent to 1.41 billion.
That compared with an increase of 5.84 per cent to 1.34 billion in the 2010 census, and double-digit percentage rises in all of China's previous six official population surveys dating back to 1953.
The number meant China narrowly missed a target it set in 2016 to boost its population to about 1.42 billion by 2020.
Ning Jizhe, an official from the National Bureau of Statistics, said "the data showed that the population of China maintained a mild growth momentum in the past decade".
The number of people aged between 15 and 59 dropped nearly 7 per cent, while those aged above 60 was up more than 5 per cent.
One bright spot in the census data was an unexpected increase in the proportion of children - 17.95 per cent of the population was 14 or younger in 2020, compared with 16.6 per cent in 2010.
"The adjustment of China's fertility policy has achieved positive results," said Ning. Beijing changed family planning rules in 2016 to allow families to have two children as fears grew about China's fast-ageing population and shrinking workforce.
But he added that the "ageing of the population imposed continued pressure on the long-term balanced development of the population in the coming period".
China recorded 12 million births in 2020 for a fertility rate of 1.3, according to Ning.
FALLING BIRTH RATES
China's birth rate has been in steady decline since 2017. It recorded its slowest birth rate since 1949 for the year 2019, at 10.48 per 1,000 people.
Urban couples, particularly those born after 1990, value their independence and careers more than raising a family despite parental pressure to have children.
Surging living costs in China's big cities, a huge source of babies due to their large populations, have also deterred couples from having children. According to a 2005 report by a state think-tank, it cost 490,000 yuan (US$74,838) for an ordinary family in China to raise a kid. By 2020, local media reported that the cost had risen fourfold to as high as 1.99 million yuan.
"Having a kid is a devastating blow to career development for women at my age," said Annie Zhang, a 26-year-old insurance professional in Shanghai who got married in April last year.
"Secondly, the cost of raising a kid is outrageous (in Shanghai)," she said, in comments made before the 2020 census was published. "You bid goodbye to freedom immediately after giving birth."
The average size of a family is now 2.62 people, the data showed, down from 3.10 people ten years ago.
"The family households continued to downsize because of increasing population mobility and the fact that young people after marriages lived separately from parents with improved housing conditions," said Ning.
In a stark sign of the changing face of Chinese society, the urban population grew to 236.4 million - nearly 15 per cent more than in the previous census.
More than 63 per cent of people now living in urban areas.
However, nearly 500 million are part of what Beijing calls the "floating population" - migrant workers who live in places other than their official household registration.
China conducts a census every ten years to determine population growth, movement patterns and other trends. The sensitive data plays a major role in government policy planning.
The 2020 survey was completed in December with the help of more than 7 million volunteers who surveyed residents door-to-door.
For the first time, much of the census data was collected online this year, Ning said, adding that the data was "rigorous" and "reliable".
In recent months, China's state media has been increasingly bleak on the outlook, saying the population may start to shrink in the next few years.
The United Nations predicts the number of people living in mainland China will peak in 2030 before declining.
But in late April, the Financial Times newspaper said the population actually fell in 2020 from a year earlier, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter.
The National Bureau of Statistics retorted with a one-line statement insisting the population grew last year, but stopped short of saying from which year it had grown.
Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert at the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, said: "A sharp decline in the number of births is a sure thing, and all kinds of evidence support this claim.
"It doesn't take published census data to determine that China is facing a massive drop in births."
And even if China's population didn't decline in 2020, "it will in 2021 or 2022, or very soon", Huang added.