China's population to peak in 2021 as demographic turning point has already arrived, threatening to disrupt Beijing's economic ambitions

China’s population, 12 million babies last year,, 14.65 million in 2019, economic development and technological innovation, tumbling birth rates across the country, more severe in eastern Anhui province

China’s population is expected to peak in 2021 and fall steadily in the foreseeable future in a turning point for the country’s population trajectory, according to James Liang, executive chairman of online travel platform Trip.com Group and renowned demographics expert.

Liang told the South China Morning Post on Thursday that the number of births across the country fell 20 per cent to about 10 million in 2021, citing published data from local Chinese authorities, while the number of deaths could be more than 10 million this year.

“That means the size of China’s population has peaked much earlier than previously expected,” said Liang, who has been one of the country’s loudest voices calling for pro-birth policies over the years.

Chinese mothers gave birth to just 12 million babies last year, down from 14.65 million in 2019, marking an 18 per cent decline year on year and continuing the descent to a near six-decade low. That means the national birth rate dropped to a record low of 8.52 births for every 1,000 people.

The country’s falling birth rate, ageing population and shrinking labour force represent an unsettling demographic change in the world’s most populous nation and second-largest economy. These headwinds could disrupt Beijing’s long-term ambitions for economic development and technological innovation on the global stage, as the country moves to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

From a historical perspective, tumbling birth rates across the country show how alarming the country’s population problem has become, according to Liang. “The number of new births now represents only half or a third of the number during the years of plenty,” he said, referring to the early 1990s when China recorded annual new births of more than 20 million.

Birth rate data from local authorities paint a bleak picture for population growth this year.

In Henan, the country’s third-most populous province, births in the first nine months of this year decreased 18.8 per cent, compared with the same period last year, according to the 2020 census. The number of births in the central Chinese province has declined annually since 2016.

China’s population, 12 million babies last year,, 14.65 million in 2019, economic development and technological innovation, tumbling birth rates across the country, more severe in eastern Anhui province

People bring their children to a public park on the occasion of International Children’s Day in Beijing on June 1, 2021. The following month, Beijing confirmed that all couples can have three children instead of two, in hopes of countering the rapid ageing of Chinese society. Photo: AP

The number of babies born in Guiyang, capital of southwestern Guizhou province, from January to October this year decreased by 16.8 per cent from a year earlier.

The population crisis, however, appeared more severe in eastern Anhui province. In the southern city Chizhou, data shows that the number of births in the first 10 months of this year plummeted by 21 per cent from a year ago.

The Chinese government remains at an early stage in drawing up public policies that can help increase birth numbers, months after officials confirmed that all mainland citizens can now have a third child, according to Liang.

He has suggested changes in China’s education system, including shortening secondary schooling to four years from six, as well as reforms in China’s property laws to help grow the population. Still, he admitted that it would be difficult for the government to quickly adopt and implement his suggestions.

Some measures being considered by provincial authorities to encourage couples to have children may not be as effective as they desire, Liang said.

Northwest Shaanxi province, for example, was looking to increase the duration of paid maternity leave to nearly one full year, putting it on par with some developed economies in Europe.

“That would put the burden on employers,” Liang said. “It could result in discrimination by employers against female jobseekers.”

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