China Approaching 'Population Crisis' as Numbers Fall for First Time Since 1960, Economist Predicts

China, the world's most populous nation, is set to record its first decrease in population since 1960, prompting economic and birth rate concerns that could reverse longtime restrictions on the number of children per family.

Chinese officials are scheduled to begin releasing their once-a-decade comprehensive census data in the coming weeks, and demographic analysts say the numbers will likely show a population decrease directly tied to China's dwindling birth rate. Economist Ren Zeping of Evergrande Group, China's second-largest real estate developer, predicted the nation is likely to experience a "population crisis" that will soon see it replaced by India as the country with the most people.

In addition to possible economic restructuring, China's first potential decline in population in 60 years has sparked speculation that Chinese Communist Party officials may raise the retirement age and end limits on the number of children families can have.

"The aging population and declining birth rate are among the largest grey rhinos in China. Due to the long-term implementation of the family-planning policy, China's population crisis is approaching, and the economic and social problems brought about by it will become increasingly severe," Ren said in a research note highlighted Tuesday by the South China Morning Post newspaper.

Ren joined numerous population data analysts who say China's 2020 census could also mean the end of the country's hukou registration system. The household system enables people from rural areas to migrate and become permanent residents in large cities, part of a larger urbanization effort intended to stimulate economic growth.

But the system also restricts the mobility of Chinese workers, which may be strained by an increasingly older workforce and fewer young people to take those workers' place.

Analysts who are predicting that China's population will show an overall decline point to the reduced birth rate, noting that it could mark China's first decrease in population size since 1960. India's population is closing in on that of China, which has been the most populous nation since 1980. Researchers and demographic data have shown for years that India is likely to overtake China by 2026.

It's unclear if China's National Bureau of Statistics will release data pertaining to the all-important birth rate. But based upon its 2010 publicly released data, statistics will include gender, age, occupation, education and migration and marital statuses. This is China's seventh census effort.

China's Population and Development Research Center, a think tank under the Beijing government, estimates that the nation's population may peak around 2027 before falling to 1.32 billion by 2050. The center found that the number of Chinese women in their prime childbearing ages, between the ages of 20 and 34, has dropped each year by 3.4 million, with that rate of decline expected to double to 6.2 million annually by 2026.

Yi Fuxian, a statistician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote last year that China had "seriously overestimated the country's actual birth rate and population size" as of 2019. He also cast some doubt on the "quality" of the census data set to be released in the coming months by Chinese Communist Party officials.

"The wrong demographic data has not only delayed the adjustment of population policies but also misled other policies," Yi explained. "The statistics bureau needs to keep demographic data consistent with the past, or officials will be held accountable.

Many U.S. political commentators have suggested that China's population reduction may mean a handing off of the baton to India as the world's next economic leader.

"Russia's and China's populations are shrinking," conservative author Bill Kristol tweeted Wednesday in response to the census report. "What can save us from the economic damage, social strains, and cultural pessimism of population decline? Above all: immigration. Opportunity-seeking, forward-looking, grateful-to-be-in-America immigrants are key to a bright future."

Newsweek reached out to Chinese diplomatic offices in Washington for additional remarks but did not hear back before publication.

People wait to enter China's Guangzhou Railway Station on February 2. Lin Hongxian/Reuters