China’s latest statistical yearbook showed strong indication of the country’s looming demographic crisis, as birth rates and marriage registrations continue to decline — a trend that has long worried authorities amid an increasingly aging society.
According to figures in the annual data released by the National Bureau of Statistics, the country reported its lowest national birth rate — calculated by the number of births in the total population — in over four decades. The seventh census data released earlier in May showed there were 12 million births in 2020, for a fertility rate of 1.3.
The China Statistical Yearbook involves a collection of statistics that comprehensively reflects the country’s demographic, economic, and social development, with the data dating back as early as the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
Here are some takeaways from the 2021 yearbook.
Lowest birth rate since 1978
Though birth rates have generally been declining with minor fluctuations over the years, China reported its lowest birth rate last year since 1978. In 2020, there were 8.52 newborns per 1,000 people, with the figure falling below 10 for the first time ever.
The natural growth rate of the population — the difference between birth rate and death rate — was 1.45 newborns per 1,000 people, also the lowest since 1978. Once the country experiences more deaths than births, its population will enter a period of “negative growth” or shrinking, according to experts.
Song Jian, professor at the School of Sociology and Population Studies at the Renmin University of China, told Sixth Tone that China’s population is getting closer to zero growth, as the birth rate is declining, while the death rate remains relatively stable.
“If the trend continues, we could soon see negative population growth in several years,” she said. “While the young workforce could shrink more rapidly, the aging problem may intensify, which is detrimental to economic and social development in the long term.”
To address slowing birth rates, both the central and local governments have rolled out plans to make it easier for couples to raise children, including lowering the cost of education and increasing financial subsidies, maternity, and parental leave.
Fewer marriage registrations
Last year, marriage registrations dropped for the seventh consecutive year, with only 8.1 million couples officially tying the knot — an estimated 40% drop from a peak in 2013. The number of marriage registrations also hit a 17-year low in 2020.
Over recent years, more and more young Chinese have refrained from getting married, with women especially pushing back due to the “motherhood penalty” that is likely to affect their careers. Nearly a half of urban young women and nearly a quarter of men said they have no intention to marry, mainly due to concerns over both personal and financial costs, a recent survey showed.
Meanwhile, about 4.3 million couples registered for divorce last year, a drop of 7.7% from 2019, according to the statistical yearbook. After the 30-day “cool-off period” for couples before their separation went into effect this year, divorce rates reduced by 72% nationally in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the last quarter of the previous year, official data showed.
More men in rural areas
China’s sex ratio in rural areas was 107.91 in 2020, meaning about 108 men for every 100 women, according to the yearbook. The number was higher than the ratio in urban areas of 102.97.
The census data published earlier this year also showed the sex ratio imbalance. In 2020, there were 111.3 boys born — it usually ranges between 103 and 107 — for every 100 girls.
The data underscores the rising discontent among aging and unmarried rural men, whose issues with marriage authorities are now increasingly seeing it as a social problem. As a solution, some local governments have encouraged young women to stay in their rural hometowns to “bring warmth to the beds of aging rural men” — a move that has been derided for its sexism.
“A policy based on the notion that women should serve men is built on shaky foundations,” Shen Bin, columnist at Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, wrote last month. “Instead of encouraging women to stay at home and participate in revitalizing the countryside, it’s far more likely to push them to get out while they still can.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: People Visual)