China’s Shrinking Population: Causes and Consequences

The long-term population pattern of China went through multiple cycles peaking with each imperial power and then being decimated due to wars and barbarian invasions. The percentage share of the world of China’s population has been at an average of 26% with a standard deviation of 6%. This percentage share has seen a downward slide in the late 20th and early 21st century.

As per the recent numbers by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the country’s total population has declined by 850,000 people in the period between 2021 end and 2022 end. China’s population exceeds 1.4 billion people and the reduction number is not very big. However, it does indicate a concerning demographic shift of the elderly population outnumbering the young. An assistant professor of international social and public policy at the London School of Economics, Shuang Chen said – “What is concerning is not so much the decline in sheer size, but rather a rapid aging and the socioeconomic challenges of adapting to the rapid change in population structure.” This decline in China’s population has always been a very real possibility. What remains unclear is the role that the covid-19 pandemic might have played in pulling the timeline closer.

If this trend is allowed to continue without interference, then by the year 2035, more than one-third of China’s current population might be above the age of 60 years putting a heavy strain on the country’s infrastructure and resources.

Reasons For Decline
Effects Of Declining Population
Action Plan To Improve Population

Reasons For Decline

After World War II, China’s population witnessed a rapid increase. The country’s population which was at 540 million in 1949 grew to 969 million in 1980, notwithstanding the decline it experienced in 1961 when China was in the grip of the four-year famine following the failed ‘Great Leap Forward’ campaign. However, its growth spurt was also putting a strain on the country’s limited supply of resources. Hence, the then Communist Party leader, Deng Xiaoping instituted the one-child policy in 1980. It remained in effect for more than 35 years and it was only in 2016 that the limit was expanded to 2 children. In the year 2021, the limit was further expanded to three children. This social experiment initially achieved its goal as fertility rates steadily decreased. Advances in the field of medicine also increased life expectancy from 57 years in 1970 to 78 years in 2020.

Another reason for the population decline is the high living and education costs despite the rapidly growing economy of the country over the last few decades. In the year 2021, China’s unemployment rate for the younger generation was as high as 16.7%. One more strong contributing factor has also been the strict anti-Covid measures which have lowered the birth rate.

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According to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, the population is expected to decrease by 0.49 per thousand in the present year. This is the first decline the country is witnessing since the famine. The academy has also predicted an annual average decline of 1.1% after 2021. It estimates that China’s population in 2100 will drop down to 587 million – less than half of what it is today. This will also lower the annual average of China’s working-age population setting the stage for lower economic growth.

Total population of China from 1980 to 2022 with forecasts until 2027 (in millions)
Total population of China from 1980 to 2022 with forecasts until 2027 (in millions)

Effects Of Declining Population

As one of the top five global economies, any occurring event in China has worldwide repercussions. Yi Fuxian studying Chinese demographics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said in an interview – “China’s labor force engaged in manufacturing is starting to shrink, meaning higher manufacturing costs in China will lead to high prices and high inflation in the US and EU.” Secondly, the decline can severely affect its stance as a global superpower.

Internally, a population lowering in number and simultaneously growing older will also reduce the country’s tax revenue and contributions to pensions affecting the extent to which the government can provide for its citizens. Even the country’s transition to a middle-income economy has become one of its great concerns. China will become old before becoming rich.

What China’s Shrinking Population Means For The Global Economy?

Action Plan To Improve Population

As concerning as the situation of a declining population is today, it is not inevitable, as per some demographers. Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social science at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi says – “It would only be a crisis if you carried on regardless. There are things the government can do to address the problem and it has already started to try.”

In his speech at the National Party Congress in October 2022, President Xi Jinping said – “China will improve the population development strategy. We will establish a policy system to boost birth rates, and bring down the costs of pregnancy and childbirth, child-rearing, and schooling.”

The country’s government has already proactively rolled out programs to ease these burdens on its citizens, including offering cash incentives for a third child.


While being a considerable problem for China in the coming years, it does not seem insurmountable. However, the obstacle is considered taking into account the imbalance between the male and female genders. It remains to be seen how the government’s policies help the country to successfully navigate the threat of a declining population.


What are the main factors contributing to China’s population decline?

The main factors contributing to China’s population decline are low birth rates, aging population, and high living and education costs.

What measures has the Chinese government taken to address the population decline issue?

The Chinese government has implemented several measures to address the population decline issue, including:

  1. Relaxing the one-child policy
  2. Providing financial incentives
  3. Improving healthcare and social security
  4. Encouraging immigration

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