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India may cross China as most populous sooner than thought

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China’s population is growing at its slowest pace in decades, latest census data released on Tuesday showed, with the country adding only 72 million people in the past decade. The average annual growth rate was 0.53% over the last 10 years, down from 0.57% between 2000 and 2010, taking the population to 1.41 billion. The total population on the mainland stood at 1.41178 billion on November 1.

The latest data puts China on course to be overtaken by India as the most populous country, which is expected to happen by the year 2025. India’s population last year was estimated by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs at 1.38 billion, or 1.5% behind China.

India has maintained a fertility rate of around 2.3, which indicates that its population may surpass China’s by 2023 or 2024, He Yafu, an independent demographer, told Chinese state media on Tuesday, earlier than the latest UN prediction.

The population growth rate in China is the slowest since 1953, when the first census was carried out. The slump in the growth rate – despite Beijing withdrawing the one-child policy in 2016 after it was in force since the late 1970s – will add pressure on Beijing to incentivise childbearing as the most populous country deals with a rapidly ageing population and the resultant economic burden.

The fresh census results showed that China’s “…population is not just declining but also its demographic structure is deteriorating with a growing aging population, will serve as an important reference for China’s population and economic policy adjustment as well as plans to put off retirement, which may come in the next year or two”, a state media report said.

Ning Jizhe, head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), said 12 million babies were born last year – a significant decrease from the 18 million in 2016 and 14.65 million in 2019.

Ning, however, added that it was “still a considerable number”. Ning said a lower fertility rate is a natural result of China’s social and economic development.

Also read | India shouldn’t copy China’s birth-control policies, say experts

The median age of the Chinese population stood at 38.8 in 2020 compared to 38 in the US. By 2050, this gap is set to increase with China’s median age rising to 55-56 and the US’s to 44-45. The current median age of the Indian population is 29 years and it is expected to increase to 38 by 2050, giving the country a significant demographic advantage.

China’s demographic situation is similar to that of Japan, South Korea, and some other developed countries that are facing the problem of an ageing and a dependent population. But it will have to deal with the reality that, unlike developed countries, China has not yet been able to generate similar levels of household wealth.

The census found there has been a rapid shrinking of China’s labour force in the past decade while the ageing population continued to increase. The proportion of people aged between 15 and 59 was 894 million, down by 6.79 percentage points from the 2010 census.

“The number of people aged 60 and above grew to 264 million, up from 177.6 million in the 2010 census, and the number of people aged 65 and above grew to 190 million, up from 118.8 million in the 2010 census,” the state-run tabloid Global Times reported, quoting the new data.

Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert at the Beijing-based think tank Centre for China and Globalisation, said: “That (the census data) means the official number of the births every year for the past 10 years were mostly accurate. It also means the downward trend is more significant than what we expected in the recent years.”

The two-child policy, which was implemented in 2016, has failed to make an impact on the low birth rates. “From the trend of population development in recent years, the population growth will continue to slow in the future,” NBS head Ning said, adding that China’s total population will remain at more than 1.4 billion in the near future.

He Yafu, an independent demographer, told the Global Times that there is no doubt that China will “fully lift birth restrictions in the near future…likely to remove its family planning policy as early as this autumn during the sixth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC)”.

Fully lifting birth restrictions may not be enough to avert a fall in total population, or prevent China from becoming another Japan, demographers said, noting that Beijing should come up with more measures to encourage childbirth, such as subsidising couples who choose to have more than one baby.

China conducted national censuses in 2010, 2000, 1990, 1982, 1964, and 1953.

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