Plunge in Chinese Birth Rates too Rapid, No Hope for Return to Replacement Rate


A senior figure from China’s leading demographics think tank says that the country’s birth rates are falling too rapidly, making it host to the world’s most rapidly ageing population.

Zhang Chewei (张车伟), vice-head of the China Population Association and head of the Population and Labour Economics Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said to China Newsweek that while the ageing of the Chinese population hasn’t yet reached an extreme level, China is currently host the world’s most rapidly ageing population.

“The ageing process of developed countries usually takes as long as several decades, or even over 100 years,” said Zhang.

“In France it has taken 115 years, 85 years in Switzerland, 80 years in the UK and 60 years in the US. In China, however, it’s only taken 18 years.

“According to United Nations’ projections, the average annual growth rate of the world’s elderly population will only be 2.5% for the period from 1990 to 2020, yet over the same period the growth rate for China’s ageing population will rise to 3.3%…the acceleration is constant.”

Zhang points to a sudden drop in China’s fertility rates as the chief culprit behind its rapidly ageing population.

“China’s fertility rates have fallen too quickly…China’s total fertility rate reached the replacement level of 2.1 in 1990, and subsequent to that began to decline.

“From 2000 to the present, it’s continually ranged between 1.5 to 1.6, which is categorised as a severe falling birthrate. The latest data indicates that in 2016 China’s total fertility rate was 1.7.”

China’s long-standing one child policy is one of the chief culprits for this drop in fertility, alongside other factors such as economic and social development and gains in income and education levels – in particular increases in female levels of education and rates of participation in the work force.

Zhang is not optimistic about the prospect of China achieving the target of a total fertility rate of 1.8 by 2020 as outlined by the State Council’s “National Policy Development Plan (2016 – 2030) (国家人口发展规划(2016—2030年)).

“Looking at China’s current, extremely low fertility rate, it would be hard to expect a substantive leap, and we can only hope to move closer towards the target of the replacement rate of 2.1.

“There is no possibility [of restoring the replacement rate], because given the laws of population development, once you succumb to a super-low fertility rate, you can’t come back.

“In future, China’s population will definitely gradually decline. Additionally, China has already reached the stage where it would be very hard to achieve marked results in boosting fertility.”

Zhang said that these inevitable demographic changes will have profound implications for the Chinese economy and necessitate major key changes.

“In future economic development must give consideration to the factor of ageing. For example,we must change from the labour-intensive economic growth model that we mainly adopted in the past, and adapt to an ageing population.

“Industry must upgrade, and economic development must change models…because China will grow old before it becomes rich, ageing will put a huge burden on pensions in China.

“In recent years the state has made plans for this, with improvements to China’s aged care system, and the complete opening of the two child policy.”

Zhang said that the reversal of China’s long-standing one child policy will play a key role in boosting population growth.

“Loosening [of the policy] will significantly alleviate population ageing…of course dealing with ageing isn’t just a case of the government being able to solve the problem by issuing a policy. It requires the joint efforts of all of society, including communities and households.”