Medical staff check on a newborn baby at a hospital in Handan, China. The country’s fertility rate has been dropping for decades.

Hu Gaolei/VCG via Getty Images

Ending months of speculation about what its 2020 census would find, China reported today that preliminary data show its population is still growing. But major demographic challenges loom. China’s population will start to shrink in the next few years, the trends suggest, meaning fewer and fewer people in their working prime will have to support a rapidly growing cadre of elderly. That has triggered discussions about how to increase the country’s birth rate, which is far below the replacement level.

“China’s population will peak in the future, but there remains uncertainty as to when,” National Bureau of Statistics head Ning Jizhe said at a press conference in Beijing today.

China is now home to 1.411 billion people, according to the decadal census, up from 1.339 billion in 2010. The number of citizens increased by an annual average of 0.53% over the past decade, a drop from the 0.57% rate recorded between 2000 and 2010. It was the lowest rate of growth since the early 1960s, when famine caused the population to decline. Those age 60 and over now make up 18.70% of the population, an increase of 5.44 percentage points since 2010. The census also showed that illiteracy decreased, the sex ratio at birth became slightly less skewed toward boys, and the number of years in school and the number of university graduates increased.

The top-heavy age pyramid has policymakers worried that China may grow old before it grows rich. In many economic sectors, male employees can retire at 60; female office staff can retire at 55 and female blue-collar workers at 50. Those ages were set in the early 1950s, when life expectancy was less than 45; it has since risen to about 77. Previous efforts to make people work longer foundered because of public opposition. Now, there are “real discussions to push for a retirement age change,” says Yong Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

What to do at the other end of the demographic equation is more contentious. China’s total fertility dropped precipitously in the 1970s, from 5.8 births per woman in 1970 to 2.8 in 1979. The one-child policy, which took effect in 1980, drove fertility down further but also made it difficult to establish the exact rate because births were underreported. Estimates were “all over the place,” Cai says. There is general agreement that fertility dropped below 2.1, the rate at which a population remains stable, in the early 1990s. In a 2013 study in Population and Development Review, Cai figured the total fertility rate in 2010 was 1.5 or lower. Now, the statistics bureau estimates it at 1.3 in 2020. And unlike the United States and Europe, China has next to no immigration to offset low fertility.

Since 2016, Chinese couples can have two children, and a new 5-year plan adopted in March calls for reducing the burdens of having, raising, and educating children by improving child care services and parental leave policies. Parents still face fines if they have more than two children, but there is now talk of allowing parents to have as many kids as they want.

Some would go further. Entrepreneur Liang Jianzhang, who’s also an applied economist at Peking University, has long warned a shrinking population will lose its innovative prowess. In a May 2020 op-ed in China Daily he recommended building “a fertility-friendly society” using monthly child care subsidies, tax incentives, and subsidized housing for families with multiple children.

But such incentives are unlikely to reverse what is a worldwide trend toward fewer children, says Zhongwei Zhao, a demographer at the Australian National University. He takes comfort from another new statistic: 15.5% of Chinese people now have a tertiary education, up from 8.9% in 2010. This huge increase in human capital “is going to drive socioeconomic development,” Zhao says.