Will China Shrink in 2018, Ten Years Ahead of Schedule?

The South China Morning Post recently reported that Chinese demographers expect their country’s population to peak in 2018. That year is a full decade earlier than the highpoint projected in the UN’s most recent estimates and is yet another indication that China’s demographic problems are accelerating.

And there is little relief in sight. The official National Bureau of Statistics reports that China’s total fertility rate or TFR, the number of births per woman living through childbearing age, was a stunningly low 1.05 last year, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

Not all of Beijing’s officials share this gloomy outlook. Caixin Online, the widely followed Chinese financial site, reports that on Saturday China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission projected the number of Chinese births to rise 5.7% this year to 17.5 million, 0.95 million more than in 2015. Caixin termed the surge a “mini baby boom.”

Wang Peian, the Commission’s deputy director, thinks the boom will continue for some time. China’s annual births, the official said, could hit 20 million soon, resulting in a population of 1.45 billion in 2030. Wang predicted that China’s TFR will hover around 1.8 from this year to 2020.

This century, the Commission’s figures have consistently differed from other official numbers. The 2010 census, for example, showed China’s TFR in 2000 was less than 1.4, far below the 1.8 reported by the Commission.

Why the large discrepancy? To begin with, data collection in China is always a challenge, but in the case of demography it is complicated by political imperatives. The Commission, responsible for the country’s population planning, is vulnerable because there is wide agreement that its one-child policy, liberalized last October, was kept in place far too long.

The new two-child policy, which among other things obliges parents to seek permission for a second child and does not allow single women to bear children, is considered too little and too late to prevent a long-term population slump.

The party knows that in matters of demography, unlike other areas such as the economy, it has no one to blame if dire predictions come true. And the evidence of accelerated demographic decline is becoming difficult to hide.

At the beginning of this decade, for example, UN projections showed China’s population peaking in the 2030s. That has been brought forward to 2028 in the UN’s most recent estimates, which are found in the 2015 Revision of its World Population Prospects, released last July.  

Now, even 2028 looks optimistic. The projected peak year of 2018, as reported by the South China Morning Post on Saturday, could be close to the mark as it generally accords with that of Liu Mingkang. Speaking at the Asia Global Dialogue in May 2012, the prominent official admitted population would top off in 2020.

Moreover, there is other evidence of erosion. At the end of last decade China’s official demographers were predicting that the country’s workforce, the 15-59 age cohort, would hit the highpoint in 2016. The NBS reported that the peak in fact came in 2011.

Recent trends suggest that the current projections of the National Health and Family Planning Commission are overly optimistic and that China will soon face the adverse consequences of a rapidly shrinking country.

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