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China’s Census Shows an Aging, Better-Educated Country

Births are falling. The population is aging. The work force of the world’s second-largest economy is shrinking.

China’s latest once-a-decade census, which was conducted last year, showed the slowest population growth since the 1960s, confirming that the country is in the midst of an urgent demographic crisis.

The results may push the government to loosen its family planning restrictions, which have shaped the most intimate aspects of Chinese society — marriage, childbirth and child-rearing — for decades. But the stark need for change has also underscored how reluctant the authorities have been to fully let go of control.

Here are some major takeaways from the census.

Perhaps the most highly anticipated question was about the future of childbirth in China, as the country ages rapidly. The answer was striking: On average, Chinese women are expected to have just 1.3 children each over the course of their lives.

That would be one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. In 2019, only five countries had lower rates — South Korea, Singapore, Malta, Ukraine and Spain — according to World Bank data. Last year, just 12 million babies were born in China, the lowest official number since 1961, as the country was emerging from a devastating famine.

Experts cautioned that the pandemic may have been a major factor, but births have now declined for four consecutive years.

The numbers make clear that China’s aging crisis will not be resolved anytime soon. As older Chinese people occupy a greater share of the population, while the younger work force who would support them declines, China’s pension funds and underdeveloped facilities for older adults are sure to feel strain. Adults above 60 now make up 18.7 percent of the population, compared with 13.3 percent in 2010.

Liang Jianzhang, a demography expert at Peking University, said he expected that the government would lift its remaining limits on fertility soon. Five years ago it ended its one-child policy and allowed families to have two children, but families who have more can still be penalized or denied benefits.

The Chinese government’s latest five-year plan, an economic blueprint issued this year, promised an even more “inclusive” policy toward childbirth, leading some unmarried women and gay couples to hope that they, too, could win greater rights and more access to reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization.

“If you have a pro fertility policy, by default, you should remove restrictions,” Professor Liang said.

But despite their rhetoric, officials have at times imposed greater restrictions on certain groups. In the western region of Xinjiang, officials are forcing women to have fewer babies as part of an effort to control the Muslim ethnic minorities there.

One of China’s most persistent problems in recent decades has been its excess of men, a product of the one-child policy that had encouraged families to abort female fetuses or abandon baby girls. Tuesday’s data showed that the practice is starting to ebb. Among newborns, males outnumbered females 111.3 to 100. Ten years ago, that ratio was 118.1 to 100.

“It’s positive, because it indicates a shift toward changing attitudes in gender roles and the value of girls versus boys,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies demography. But that ratio is still higher than normal, suggesting a lingering preference for boys, he added.

The advancement of women faces more official obstacles, too. In an effort to address the fertility crisis, officials in recent years have sought to push women back into traditional gender roles. Feminist activists have been detained or censored online.

China has made huge strides in increasing education accessibility. From 2010 to 2020, the number of people with a university education leapt 73 percent, from 8,930 out of every 100,000 people to 15,467. More than 218 million people now have a university education.

That rate, about 15 percent of the population, still lags behind many developed countries. (On average in 2019, 39 percent of adults aged 25 to 64 in countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development had some form of tertiary education.) But it is a tremendous accomplishment for a country that in 1997 had fewer than 3.5 million undergraduate and graduate students.

Still, experts have noted that the surging numbers of college graduates may bring a new problem: a dearth of well-paid jobs to employ them. China’s economy is still largely reliant on blue-collar labor. Ning Jizhe, the head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, acknowledged the gap at a news conference about the census on Tuesday.

“Employment pressure on college students is increasing,” he said. “The pace of industrial transformation and upgrading needs to speed up.”

Unless the new crop of educated young people can find stable jobs, Professor Gietel-Basten said, the fertility rate may drop even further. “If you’ve got a situation where you have graduate unemployment and it’s difficult to access these good jobs,” he said, “why would you have more babies?”

From 2010 to 2020, the percentage of people living in the northeastern region of China dropped 1.2 percent, while the share in the highly developed eastern region grew 2.15 percent.

Northeastern China, which includes Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces, is often called China’s Rust Belt: A once-vibrant industrial hub that has seen its economic fortunes flag. As the region has declined in recent years, its population has too. But places like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong Province and Zhejiang Province have continued to boom.

Some of the growth may stem from rapid urbanization. The census showed that the urban population share increased 14.2 percent in the past decade, to nearly 64 percent.

But experts said the unfavorable economic conditions had trapped northeastern China in a downward spiral in which people did not want to have babies and also were moving out of in search of better opportunities and social benefits.

“Education, pensions, health care — the regional difference is enormous,” said Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. As the northeast continues to empty out, those disparities may become even more pronounced, he added.

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