China's weak population growth is falling closer to zero as fewer couples have children, government data showed, adding to strains on an aging society with a shrinking workforce.
The population rose by 72 million people over the past 10 years to 1.411 billion in 2020, the National Bureau of Statistics announced after a once-a-decade census. It said annual growth averaged 0.53%, down by 0.04% from the previous decade.
Chinese leaders have enforced birth limits since 1980 to restrain population growth but worry the number of working-age people is falling too fast, disrupting efforts to create a prosperous economy. They have eased birth limits, but couples are put off by high costs, cramped housing and job discrimination against mothers.
"Labor resources are still abundant," the statistics agency director, Ning Jizhe, said at a news conference.
The percentage of children in the population edged up compared with 2010, while the share 60 and older rose faster. The pool of potential workers aged 15 to 59 shrank to 894 million, down about 5% from a 2011 peak of 925 million.
Changes in birth limits and other policies "promoted a rebound in the birth population," Ning said. However, he said there were 12 million babies born last year, which would be down 18% from 2019's report of 14.6 million.
China, along with Thailand and some other developing Asian countries that are aging fast, faces what economists call the challenge of whether it can grow rich before it grows old. Some forecasters warn China faces a "demographic time bomb."
Reflecting the issue's sensitivity, the statistics agency took the unusual step last month of announcing the population grew in 2020 but gave no total. That looked like an effort to calm companies and investors after The Financial Times reported the census might have found a surprise decline.
"We are more concerned about the fast decline in the working-age population," said Lu Jiehua, a professor of population studies at Peking University.
The population of potential workers aged 15 to 59 will fall from three-quarters of the total in 2011 to just above half by 2050, according to Lu.
"If the population gets too old, it will be impossible to solve the problem through immigration," said Lu. "It needs to be dealt with at an early stage."
Couples who want a child face daunting challenges.
Many share crowded apartments with their parents. Child care is expensive and maternity leave short. Most single mothers are excluded from medical insurance and social welfare payments.
Some women worry giving birth could hurt their careers.
"When you have a kid, you take pregnancy leave, but will you still have this position after you take the leave?" said He Yiwei, who is returning from the United States after obtaining a master's degree. "Relative to men, when it comes to work, women have to sacrifice more."
Japan, Germany and some other rich countries face the same challenge of supporting aging populations with fewer workers. But they can draw on investments in factories, technology and foreign assets. By contrast, China still is a middle-income country with labor-intensive farming and manufacturing.
The decline in the working-age population "will place a cap on China's potential economic growth," said Yue Su of the Economist Intelligence Unit in a report. That is a "powerful incentive to introduce productivity-enhancing reforms."
The International Monetary Fund is forecasting Chinese economic growth of 8.4% this year following a rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. The ruling Communist Party wants to double output per person from 2020 levels by 2035, which would require annual growth of about 4.7%.
The numbers reported Thursday reflect a gain of 11.8 million people, or 0.8%, over the official estimate for 2019, when the government says the population edged above 1.4 billion for the first time.
The working-age population fell to 63.3% of the total from 70.1% a decade ago. The group up to age 14 expanded by 1.3 percen...