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Census offers insight into China’s demographic trends

ZHANG YI | 2021-06-03 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Census takers register residents’ information in Xicheng District, Beijing, on Dec. 23, 2020. Photo: CFP

China released the results of the seventh national census on May 11, spurring an outpouring of commentary on its population size, structure, and distribution as well as the latest demographic changes and trends. Chinese scholars consider it a top concern to interpret the statistics and provide policy advice to promote long-term and balanced population development.
Population peak prediction
In the past decade, as the number of newborns fluctuated, trending towards decline, the government rapidly revised the original family planning policy. In 2013, China relaxed its policy, allowing people who were only children to have a second child, and in 2015, a universal two-child policy was adopted. 
However, data from China’s 1‰ population sample survey in recent years shows that institutional dividends of the 2013 and 2015 reforms will only be effective for one to two years. Statistics reveal that the birthrate continues to drop each year: 17.86 million in 2016; 17.23 million in 2017; in 2018, 15.23 million people were born; in 2019, 14.65 million; in 2020—according to the seventh census, only 12 million people were born.
In addition, data shows the total population of China in 2019 was 1.4 billion. With deaths approaching 10 million or so in recent years, the census found a total population of 1.411 billion in 2020, which means there are 11 million more people in 2020 than in 2019.
Nonetheless, there is a definite trend of declining birthrates and accelerating population aging. If the proportion of elderly people in a population pyramid rises, so does the mortality rate. If the number of adult women in their childbearing years shrinks, the number of married couples per year will also fall, thus reducing the number of new births per year. For example, the number of couples registered for marriage on the Chinese mainland dropped from 13.41 million in 2013 to 9.22 million in 2019.
In terms of demographic research, the number of births approaching the number of deaths announces the arrival of a population peak. The number of new births in 2020 was only 12 million, but the number of deaths already exceeded 10 million, indicating that China’s total population is approaching a peak. 
Upon hitting a population peak, the total population typically declines if the number of deaths exceeds that of births each year. If the number of births is close to the number of deaths each year, the total population might linger at the same level, but eventually it will decline. At the end of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) or at the beginning of the 15th Five-Year Plan, China’s population is likely to peak. Based on the current population of 1.411 billion, the peak is likely to be within 1.42 billion.
Temporary employment
The seventh national census found that China’s working-age population, those between 16 and 59 years old, is 890 million, accounting for 63.35% of the total population, 6.79% lower than the sixth census.
Cai Fang, CASS Member, proposed a two turning point theory to describe China’s population structure. In light of the research detailed below, one turning point should be added to this theory, to form a three turning point hypothesis.
First, the working-age population peak is the first population structure turning point. China’s working-age population has been shrinking by 2 million to 4 million a year since about 2013, which directly causes a shortage of migrant workers and difficulty in recruiting workers. Coupled with the continuous expansion of production, the rural labor force pool is gradually being drained. The slow wage growth in labor-intensive enterprises and improved labor conditions increased laborers’ bargaining power, enabling workers to “vote with feet” and choose where they want to settle. As a result, enterprises have to improve production lines, improve labor efficiency, and increase technology and capital intensity to cope with the shortage of labor.
The labor force participation population’s peak is the second turning point in population structure. In the demographic transition, the decline of the proportion of working-age people will inevitably lead to changes in the proportion of labor participation—both the total number and the proportion will decline. 
In general, declining proportions of labor force participation populations often precede declines in the total labor force participation population. For example, the ratio has fallen from about 71% in the sixth census to about 67% in the seventh census.
The total population peak is the third turning point in population structure. The decreasing working-age population and proportion affects the labor participation population, which work together to accelerate the total population’s peak and sends the total population into a downward momentum. In the absence of substantial immigration, such a trend is almost inevitable. 
China’s current population will shift from peak to decline in about 2025 to 2027. The lower the labor force participation rate, the more technological progress is required to compensate for its negative effects. If science and technology cannot keep up with population aging, the relationship between production, accumulation, and consumption formed under the structure of our current labor force and supporting population will disintegrate, forcing Chinese society to form a new distribution pattern under the new population structure.
In the process of modernization, high-end human capital will have higher requirements regarding quality of work, which will increase the temporary staffing rate in the labor market. Originally, temporary workers were often low-end human capital, but if the high-end human capital labor force postpones their employment or decides to monitor the market before signing contracts, or simply voluntarily become temporary workers, then society as a whole will usher in an era of temporary employment. For example, in 2020, the temporary working population reached more than 200 million, in contrast to only about 770 million in the labor force participation population. This should be a frictional phenomenon in which the rate of change in the structure of labor positions cannot keep up with the rate of change in the labor market.
The lower the number of labor participants, the higher the dependency ratio. In this case, we cannot rely solely on pensions to solve the old-age care problem, nor can we rely solely on the financial support of childcare to solve the gaps in pre-school education. Against the backdrop of a slowdown in fiscal revenue, the rapid decline in labor force participation rates can only be cushioned through full employment, by improving human capital through training, or improving the working environment and raising income levels of the working population through technology-intensive and capital-intensive investment. 
It is evident that postponing the retirement age can also boost the labor force participation rate to a certain extent. However, whether the market can accept elderly workers remains unclear. Therefore, it is necessary to introduce certain social protection policies to promote institutional reform.
In the face of decreasing labor  force participation rates, difficulties in recruiting workers will persist for a long time. In pursuit of a better life, more and more people demand improved working conditions and shortened working hours; these demands will only intensify in the next 15 and 30 years of China’s development. This means that the processes of industrial upgrading and labor structure change will unfold simultaneously.
Smaller households
Family households have continued to downsize over the past 10 years. The average size of a family household fell to 2.62 persons in 2020, down from 3.10 in 2010. Smaller households could be attributed to population aging and fewer children in each family. Going forward, the trend for smaller households and single person households will continue.
In the census, we found that population aging has increased the proportion of widows and cohabiting families. An increasing late-life divorce rate will become more prominent. In the past 40 years, the divorce rate in China has been on the rise. In the process of modernization, all industrialized countries see the divorce rate rise rapidly in the later period of industrialization, and this rate remains high for a long period of time. The higher the divorce rate, the more single-parent families exist and the smaller the families are.
At the same time, the average age of first marriage in China has been extended to about 27 for men and about 25 for women. In some large cities, and in almost all megacities, the age of first marriage has been postponed to 30 for men and 28 to 29 for women. The later the age of first marriage, more single person households and smaller the households exist.
Changes in lifestyles and values in the wave of urbanization means more and more people either choose to or are forced to be single. As non-marriage becomes socially accepted, more people will be voluntarily single. There will also be an increasing number of people who are forced to be single because of setbacks in romantic relationships or family life. Social mobility or separate places of employment after marriage, known as “double city” marriages, have now become common in some places, thus increasing the proportion of people living alone even while married.
Population aging, fewer children, social mobility, marital breakdown, increased life expectancy and the fulfillment of single lifestyles, have increased the ratio of single person households while also showing a strong trend toward individualization in society as a whole. 
That said, only when we build a comprehensive social insurance system and social support system, strengthen the role of communities and perfect the system of voluntary services, reshape social organization in the digital era, and strengthen the connection between individuals and society, can we improve social member’s sense of belonging, happiness, and security, so as to let all people enjoy the achievements of modernization.
Zhang Yi is the president of the National Institute of Social Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).


Edited by YANG XUE