China's population fell last year for the first time in six decades, a historic turn that is expected to mark the start of a long period of decline in its citizen numbers with profound implications for its economy and the world.
The country's National Bureau of Statistics reported a drop of roughly 850,000 people for a population of 1.41175 billion in 2022, marking the first decline since 1961, the last year of China's Great Famine.
That possibly makes India the world's most populous nation. U.N. experts predicted last year India would have a population of 1.412 billion in 2022 though they did not expect the South Asian nation to overtake China until this year.
India, however, only collects population figures every 10 years and its latest census, originally scheduled for 2021, has been delayed due to the pandemic.
GRAPHIC: China's population drop
Long-term, U.N. experts see China's population shrinking by 109 million by 2050, more than triple the decline of their previous forecast in 2019.
That's caused domestic demographers to lament that China will get old before it gets rich, slowing the economy as revenues drop and government debt increases due to soaring health and welfare costs.
"China's demographic and economic outlook is much bleaker than expected. China will have to adjust its social, economic, defense and foreign policies," said demographer Yi Fuxian.
He added that the country's shrinking labour force and downturn in manufacturing heft would further exacerbate high prices and high inflation in the United States and Europe.
"Economic growth will have to depend more on productivity growth," added Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management.
Kang Yi, head of the national statistics bureau, dismissed concerns about the population decline, telling reporters that "overall labour supply still exceeds demand".
China's birth rate last year was just 6.77 births per 1,000 people, down from a rate of 7.52 births in 2021 and marking the lowest birth rate on record.
GRAPHIC: China's lowest birth rate on record
The number of Chinese women of childbearing age, which the government defines as aged 25 to 35, fell by about 4 million, Kang said.
The death rate, the highest since 1974 during the Cultural Revolution, was 7.37 deaths per 1,000 people, which compares with a rate of 7.18 deaths in 2021.
ONE-CHILD POLICY IMPACT
Much of the demographic downturn is the result of China's one-child policy imposed between 1980 and 2015 as well as sky-high education costs that have put many Chinese off having more than one child or even having any at all.
The one-child policy and a traditional preference for boys have also created a deep gender imbalance. The latest data shows China with around 722 million males compared to 690 million females. The imbalance, which is more pronounced in rural areas, has led to fewer families being formed in recent years.
The data was the top trending topic on Chinese social media after the figures were released on Tuesday. One hashtag,"#Is it really important to have offspring?" had hundreds of millions of hits.
"The fundamental reason why women do not want to have children lies not in themselves, but in the failure of society and men to take up the responsibility of raising children. For women who give birth this leads to a serious decline in their quality of life and spiritual life," posted one netizen with the username Joyful Ned.
Chinese netizens have also previously complained about pressure on newlyweds to have offspring as soon as possible, reporting regular calls from their local government asking when they can expect a pregnancy.
China's stringent zero-COVID policies that were in place for three years have caused further damage to the country's demographic outlook, population experts have said.
Local governments have since 2021 rolled out measures to encourage people to have more babies, including tax deductions, longer maternity leave and housing subsidies. President Xi Jinping also said in October the government would enact further supportive policies.
The measures so far, however, have done little to arrest the long-term trend.
Online searches for baby strollers on China's Baidu search engine dropped 17% in 2022 and are down 41% since 2018, while searches for baby bottles are down more than a third since 2018. In contrast, searches for elderly care homes surged eight-fold last year.
The reverse is playing out in India, where Google Trends shows a 15% year-on-year increase in searches for baby bottles in 2022, while searches for cribs rose almost five-fold.
GRAPHIC: Population comparison for China and India
(Reporting by Albee Zhang in Beijing and Farah Master in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Kevin Yao and Ella Cao in Beijing and Tanvi Mehta in New Delhi; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)