Amid predictions of China becoming an economic superpower, the populations of Beijing and Shanghai actually both dipped slightly in 2017 for the first time since 1978.  The latest figures from the National Bureau of Statistics showed the population of Beijing dropped by 22,000 to 21.7 million, a decline of 0.1 per cent, and Shanghai's population dropped by 13,700 to 24.18 million.

According to Pang Jiangqian, spokesperson for the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics, multiple factors contributed to the capital's population decline, including the decrease in China's working age population and the slowdown in migration from rural areas.  At a news conference in Beijing on Jan 19 he commented:

“In recent years, China's annual population growth dropped around 0.5 per cent. The number of people migrating to mega cities has also slowed. Against the backdrop of nationwide urbanisation, the attraction of mega cities is gradually waning,”

According to its latest development scheme, Beijing plans to cap its population at 23 million by 2020 and Shanghai aims to cap its population at 25 million by 2035, meaning the cities are unlikely to be too worried by the decline.

However, while these two super-cities might be seeking to cap their populations now, China’s population as a whole is expected to peak at 1.4 billion in the 2020’s before falling into steep decline, inhibiting the country’s future as a world economic superpower.  Official data showed that the total number of births fell by about 630,000 year on year in 2017, and already the country is seeing the rise of ghost towns and areas of ultra-low fertility.  According to some predictions, by the end of the century China's population could fall to as low as 600 million, and it will almost certainly be less than 1 billion.

The number of people age 60 or older increased by around 10 million in 2017 to 240.9 million, making up 17.3% of the population – 0.6 percentage point more than in 2016. The working-age population, being those between 16 and 59, declined for the sixth year in a row to 902 million. According to the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the number of people between the ages of 18 and 44 will decrease by a further 30 million between 2017 to 2022, threatening future economic growth. 

China needs to act now to help and encourage young couples have children if it wants to sustain the country's demographic and social development. The high cost of educating children and busy jobs are often concerns for young would-be parents, and the cultural norm of one-child enforced and encouraged for so long is not helping.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...