China's Baby Population Declines by 18% in 1 Year, Data Shows

China's baby population declined by 18% in 2020 with fewer mothers giving birth than in 2019, said the director of the National Bureau of Statistics, Ning Jizhe, after the organization gave its once-a-decade census report on Tuesday. Total births fell from 14.6 million in 2019 to 12 million last year.

The government eased restrictions in 2015 to allow couples to have two children when many were previously permitted only one. In the 1960s, Chinese mothers were having more than six children on average, and the number fell to under three in 1980, according to the World Bank.

"When you have a kid, you take pregnancy leave, but will you still have this position after you take the leave? Relative to men, when it comes to work, women have to sacrifice more," He Yiwei, who is returning to China after receiving a master's degree in America, told the Associated Press.

Chinese couples are dissuaded from having children due to job discrimination against mothers as well as high expenses and minimal living space. The shrinking in China's baby population reflects a decline in China's working-age population of individuals ages 15 to 59.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Newborn Baby in China
A medical staff member takes care of a newborn at a hospital in Danzhai, in China's southwestern Guizhou province, on May 11, 2021. The number of babies born in China in 2020 dropped by 18% from 2019. STR/AFP via Getty Images

The number of working-age people in China fell over the past decade as its aging population barely grew, the census showed Tuesday, complicating Chinese leaders' efforts to create a more prosperous and influential nation.

The total population rose to 1.411 billion people last year, up 72 million from 2010, according to the census. Slow growth fell closer to zero as fewer couples had children.

That adds to challenges for Chinese leaders who want to create a richer society and increase its global influence by developing technology industries and self-sustaining economic growth based on consumer spending.

The ruling Communist Party has enforced birth limits since 1980 to restrain population growth but worries the workforce is shrinking.

The population of potential workers aged 15 to 59 fell to 894 million last year, the National Bureau of Statistics reported. That's down 5% from a 2011 peak of 925 million. The percentage of children in the population edged up compared with 2010, but the group aged 60 and older grew faster.

Changes in birth limits and other policies "promoted a rebound in the birth population," Ning said at a news conference.

China, along with Thailand and some other developing Asian countries that are aging fast, faces what economists call the challenge of whether it can grow rich before it grows old. Some warn China faces a "demographic time bomb."

The potential shortage of workers needed to generate economic activity and tax revenue comes as President Xi Jinping's government boosts spending on its military and efforts to create global competitors in electric cars and other technologies.

Reflecting the issue's sensitivity, the statistics agency took the unusual step last month of announcing the population grew in 2020 but gave no total. That looked like an effort to calm companies and investors after The Financial Times reported the census might have found a surprise decline.

"We are more concerned about the fast decline in the proportion of the working age population compared to the total population," said Lu Jiehua, a professor of population studies at Peking University.

The working-age population will fall from three-quarters of the total in 2011 to just above half by 2050, according to Lu.

"If the population gets too old, it will be impossible to solve the problem through immigration," said Lu. "It needs to be dealt with at an early stage."

Couples who want a child face daunting challenges.

Many share crowded apartments with their parents. Child care is expensive and maternity leave short. Most single mothers are excluded from medical insurance and social welfare payments.

Some women worry giving birth could hurt their careers.

Japan, Germany and some other rich countries face the same challenge of supporting aging populations with fewer workers. But they can draw on investments in factories, technology and foreign assets. By contrast, China is a middle-income country with labor-intensive farming and manufacturing.

The decline in the working-age population "will place a cap on China's potential economic growth," said Yue Su of the Economist Intelligence Unit in a report. That is a "powerful incentive to introduce productivity-enhancing reforms."

The International Monetary Fund is forecasting Chinese economic growth of 8.4% this year following a rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. The Communist Party wants to double output per person from 2020 levels by 2035, which would require annual growth of about 4.7%.

The numbers reported Thursday reflect a gain of 11.8 million people, or 0.8%, over the official estimate for 2019, when the government said the population edged above 1.4 billion for the first time.

The working-age population fell to 63.3% of the total from 70.1% a decade ago. The group up to age 14 expanded by 1.3 percentage points to 17.9%. Those 60 and older—a group of 264 million people who on their own would be the world's fourth-biggest country—rose 5.4 percentage points to 18.7% of the population.

"Labor resources are still abundant," said Ning of the statistics agency.

However, China's birth rate, paralleling trends in South Korea, Thailand and other Asian economies, already was falling before the one-child rule.

Demographers said official birth limits concealed what would have been a further fall in the number of children per family.

The one-child limit, enforced with threats of fines or loss of jobs, led to abuses including forced abortions. A preference for sons led parents to kill baby girls, prompting warnings millions of men might be unable to find a wife, fueling social tension.

The ruling party said the policy averted shortages of food and water by preventing as many as 400 million potential births. But demographers said if China followed Asian trends, the number of additional babies without controls might have been as low as a few million.

After limits were eased in 2015, many couples with one child had a second, but total births fell because fewer had any at all.

Some researchers said China's population already is shrinking.

Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the population started to fall in 2018. His book "Big Country With An Empty Nest" argued against the one-child limit.

"China's economic, social, educational, tech, defense and foreign policies are built on the foundation of wrong numbers," said Yi.

Chinese regulators talk about raising the official retirement age of 55 to increase the pool of workers.

Female professionals welcome a chance to stay in satisfying careers. But others resent being forced to work more years. And keeping workers on the job, unable to help look after children, might discourage their daughters from having more.

The latest data puts China closer to being overtaken by India as the most populous country, which is expected to happen by 2025.

India's population last year was estimated by the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs at 1.38 billion, or 1.5% behind China. The agency said India should grow by 0.9% annually through 2025.

A Man and Child in China
A man and child wearing masks visit Tiananmen Gate near the portrait of Mao Zedong in Beijing, China, on May 3, 2021. China’s population growth is falling closer to zero as fewer couples have children, the government announced May 11, 2021, adding to strains on an aging society with a shrinking workforce. Ng Han Guan/AP Photo