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China Expected to Report First Population Decline Since 1949

People wearing face masks at a main shopping area after the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan, China, April 14, 2020 (Aly Song/Reuters)

China is positioned to report its first population decline since 1949, according to a government census which is expected to be released in the coming days.

The census, which was initially scheduled to be released in early April, is expected to report that China’s population has declined to less than 1.4 billion after briefly exceeding the number in 2019. Liu Aihua, a spokeswoman at the National Bureau of Statistics, commented on April 16 that the postponement was partly because “more preparation work” was needed before the official release.

“The census results will have a huge impact on how the Chinese people see their country and how various government departments work,” Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a think-tank headquartered in Beijing, told the Financial Times. “They need to be handled very carefully.”

Experts like Wenzheng believe that China’s falling birth rate could impede future economic growth and development in the nation.

“The pace and scale of China’s demographic crisis are faster and bigger than we imagined,” said Huang. “That could have a disastrous impact on the country.”

The weakened birth rates come after Beijing relaxed its one-child policy restrictions in 2015. China subsequently allowed families to have two children rather than just one in an effort to increase the number of births but the population did not respond as expected and birth rates remained low. The government set a target to expand the population to about 1.42 billion by 2020 and increase the fertility rate to 1.8 children per woman.

The actual fertility rate is projected to be 1.5 children per woman, which demographers say could entangle China in a so-called fertility trap.

Official data indicated that the number of babies born in China increased in 2016 but then slumped for three consecutive years. Some officials have identified the decreasing number of young women and high child-rearing expense as the culprits.

To combat the population plunge, the People’s Bank of China recommended in a report that the Chinese government “completely” abandon its “wait-and-see attitude” and overhaul the birth control rules on the books.

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