China braces for historic demographic shift, accelerated by COVID trauma

HONG KONG, Jan 13 (Reuters) – Living under China’s strict COVID-19 restrictions for the past three years has caused Zhang Qi enough stress and uncertainty to consider not having babies in the country.

When China abruptly dismantled its “zero COVID” regime last month to let the virus spread freely, the scales tipped to a definite “no”, the Shanghai-based e-commerce executive said.

Stories of mothers and babies unable to see doctors as medical facilities were overwhelmed with COVID infections were the last straw for Zhang.

“I heard that giving birth in a public hospital is just awful. I really wouldn’t consider having a baby,” the 31-year-old said.

A glimpse of the scars caused by the pandemic to China’s already bleak demographic outlook could be revealed when its official population data for 2022 is released on January 17.

Some demographers expect China’s population in 2022 to register its first decline since the Great Famine of 1961, a profound shift with profound implications for the global economy and world order.

New births for 2022 are expected to fall to record highs, falling below 10 million from last year’s 10.6 million babies – which were already 11.5% lower than in 2020.

“With this historic turning point, China has entered a long and irreversible process of demographic decline, a first in Chinese and world history,” said Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California.

“In less than 80 years, the size of the Chinese population could be reduced by 45%. It will then be a China unrecognizable by the world.

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China’s total population grew by 480,000 to reach 1.4126 billion in 2021. The United Nations predicts that China’s population will begin to decline this year when India overtakes it as the world’s most populous country.

UN experts see China’s population shrinking by 109 million by 2050, more than triple the decline of their previous forecasts in 2019.

While nine of the world’s 10 most populous nations are experiencing declining fertility, China’s 2022 fertility rate of 1.18 was the lowest and well below the OECD standard of 2.1 for a stable population.

The country, which imposed a one-child policy from 1980 to 2015, officially acknowledged that it was on the verge of a demographic slowdown last year, when the National Health Commission said the population could start to decline before 2025.

In October, President Xi Jinping said the government would adopt new policies to increase the country’s birth rate.

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Since 2021, authorities have introduced measures such as tax deductions, longer maternity leave, improved medical insurance and housing subsidies to entice people to have more babies.

So far, their impact has been lackluster.

Online searches for strollers on Baidu in China have fallen 17% in 2022 and 41% since 2018, while searches for baby bottles have fallen by more than a third since 2018. In contrast, searches for nursing homes increased eightfold last year.

The opposite is happening in India, where Google Trends shows a 15% year-over-year increase in searches for baby bottles in 2022, while searches for cribs have almost quintupled.

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The financial burden of raising children, some of the most stressful college entrance exams in the world, and a kindergarten enrollment rate of only around 5.5% for children under 3 – well lower than the OECD average – are key factors affecting the fertility rate, the YuWa Demographic Research Think Tank told this month.

The economic impact of an aging society will be significant.

Demographer Yi Fuxian expects the proportion of people aged 65 and over to reach 37% in 2050, up from 14% last year and 5% in 1980. Its labor force will not recover at the same rate in due to the decline in births.

“Rapid aging is slowing down the Chinese economy, reducing income and increasing public debt…China is getting older before it gets richer.”

Murphy, a 22-year-old student at Beijing Communication University in China, said she could not afford to have a child due to the slow economy.

The shutdowns cooled the economy to one of its lowest growth rates in nearly half a century last year.

“The pandemic has reinforced my perspective,” said Murphy, who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons. “Even if I could pay for my own expenses, why would I want to have babies?”

Additional reporting by Liz Lee, Joe Cash and the Beijing Newsroom; Sophie Yu in Shanghai and Angel Woo in Hong Kong; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Lincoln Feast.

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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