Declining fertility, low-birth rates, COVID restrictions, and lingering ramifications from China’s former “one-child” policy have all led to the communist country’s first population decline since the 1960s. It’s the first drop since the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s drastic social and economic overhaul which led to widespread death and famine.

The National Bureau of Statistics of China reported a population decrease of 850,000 at the end of 2022, leaving mainland China with a still-huge count of 1.411 billion people. The global ramifications are significant, putting President Xi Jinping’s stated goal of world dominance in peril. Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Khalifa University in Dubai, told NPR  that the days of unlimited economic expansion could soon be ending:

“The era of rapid growth, double-digit growth, of cheap labor, of a younger labor force – that era is now really at a close,” Gietel-Basten said.

Although China has long been the most populous country in the world, many predictions have India taking over the crown in 2023:

In fact, India is already within striking distance as the UN estimates its population at 1.406 billion.

China introduced its one-child policy in the late 1970s to control population and give a jolt to the economy, but the move may have backfired as in 2022, more people died than were born (9.56 million births compared to 10.41 deaths). Meanwhile, the demographics are now increasingly leading toward an aging workforce which will likely lead the way to lower productivity.

Although the People’s Republic finally ended the policy in 2015 and even allowed a third child in 2021, the ship may have already left port. Young people are increasingly concerned about the cost of raising children, and many women just aren’t that interested in starting families, notes assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan Yun Zhou:

“From my own research, what I’ve seen is women often resisted and often prioritized their paid employment and prioritized their pursuit of individualistic ideals over this sustained incentivization,” Zhou said.

The New York Times describes the expected demographic shift:

“In the long run, we are going to see a China the world has never seen,” said Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in China’s demographics. “It will no longer be the young, vibrant, growing population. We will start to appreciate China, in terms of its population, as an old and shrinking population.”

Between the declining population, aging workforce, and effects of its authoritarian COVID lockdowns, China’s economy grew at a sluggish rate of three percent in 2022, its slowest rate in nearly forty years. The United States meanwhile has also seen a decline in birth rates—with one in four potential parents reportedly putting off having families due to climate fears—but we have not seen a similar population decline because of immigration, both legal and illegal.

Projections don’t always come true, and Xi is promoting birthrates with incentives and rhetoric, but it’s hard to see China turning this decline around. For those who have been clamoring to claim the People’s Republic as the next premiere superpower, you might want to let this one play out first.

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