Why Is China’s Population Shrinking?

2022 marks first report of chinese population decline in 60 years

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The world’s largest nation is facing a decline in its numbers. Last year, deaths in China outpaced births for the first time since the 1960s. What’s happening to the Chinese population and why?

Crosswalk on busy Chinese street
China ceased its one-child policy in 2021, allowing families to have three children, but the effects of population decline are already being felt. Photo by Daniel Fung / Shutterstock

In 1958, Mao Zedong enacted his Great Leap Forward economic policy as he sought to overhaul China from an agrarian country to a Communist country. The policy was so disastrous that it resulted in the deaths of an estimated 36 million people, mostly from starvation, and is known as the Great Chinese Famine. It marked the last time the Chinese population had a year-over-year decline.

Until last year.

In 2022, China’s deaths outpaced its births by 850,000. This number is likely to ramp up in the years to come—but why? The answer lies in China’s infamous one-child policy, which limited how many children each Chinese family was legally allowed to have. In his video series Understanding Cultural and Human Geography, Dr. Paul Robbins, Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, describes the policy and its many side effects.

What Was China’s One-Child Policy?

Human population growth has been a concern for centuries. What happens when the number of humans on the planet outpaces the resources we produce? When will that happen? How can we prevent it? After passing his own economic reforms in the late 1970s that opened China up to international trade and made China one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping turned to solving the problem of unsustainable population growth. His solution was the one-child policy, which strictly limited the number of children each family was allowed to rear.

“The policy, which started in the 1980s, involves various rewards for families giving birth to only one child, including work bonuses and priority in housing, and so on,” Dr. Robbins said. “In China’s major cities, this one-child policy has been rigorously enforced, to the point where it has been almost impossible for a woman to easily plan a second pregnancy. In terms of population growth, this policy has been relatively more successful.”

What Were the Effects of China’s One-Child Policy?

Unfortunately, Deng’s plan worked all too well. When he began his reforms, the median age in China was 20.1 years old. In 2021, it was 37.9. In 1980, China’s fertility rate was close to three children per woman. Today it stands at just 1.18. Keeping in mind that a fertility rate of two children is necessary to sustain a population, the reason for China’s recent population decline becomes clear.

China scaled back the policy to three children per family in 2021, but the effects are already felt.

“[Side effects include] a lopsided population of boy children over girl children, and this resulted from a cultural preference for boy children and sex-selective abortion, and this has caused a generation of so-called missing women,” Dr. Robbins said. “The Chinese labor force is also declining, compared to the dependent, aging population.”

Unfortunately, declining populations often lead to declining economies. China has been a considerable figure in the world economy since Deng’s economic reforms; its tapering private sector will contribute to slower global economic growth.

All in all, by mid-century, the world will likely see a very different China than it does today.

Understanding Cultural and Human Geography is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily