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China’s population is growing at the slowest pace in decades

A nurse holds a newborn baby at Zhengzhou Yihe Hospital on New Year's Day on January 1, 2022 in Zhengzhou, Henan Province in China.

Wang Zheng | Visual China Group | Getty Images

BEIJING - China's population grew at the slowest rate ever last year, even as the decline in newborns slowed.

The total population on the mainland, excluding foreigners, reached 1.41 billion people by the end of last year - an increase of 480,000 people compared to 2020, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Monday.

"The most shocking part of the data release today is that the natural growth of the population has fallen to 0.034%, the first [increase] below 0.1% since data [became] available, "said Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management, in a note Monday.

The low growth rate shows that the population is aging faster than expected and suggests that China's total population may have reached its peak in 2021, he said. It "suggests that China's potential growth is likely to decline faster than expected," Zhang said.

The world's second largest economy is aging rapidly. Beijing announced last year that each couple could now have three children, further loosening family planning policies that limited households to one child for decades.

Newborns on the Chinese mainland fell by 13% in 2021 to 10.62 million babies, according to official data. That is a decrease from a decrease of 22% in 2020 compared to the year before, the data showed.

The natural growth rate refers to the difference between the number of live births and deaths in a year, divided by the average population that year and multiplied by 1,000.

The rate increased in 2016 compared to the year before, after a policy change allowed families to have two children, but the slowdown in the natural growth rate has only accelerated in recent years.

China's natural population growth of 0.034% for 2021 was the lowest since 1960, when the population declined, according to data accessed through the Wind Information database. For every two years since 1952, the data showed that the natural growth rate has been above 0.1%.

The natural growth rate was 0.145% in 2020 and 0.332% in 2019.

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When asked about population numbers on Monday, National Bureau of Statistics Commissioner Ning Jizhe attributed some of the declining growth to a decline in the number of women of childbearing age.

The number of women between the ages of 21 and 35 fell by 3 million in 2021, Ning told reporters. He said China's annual birth rate is expected to remain above 10 million a year, and the total population is likely to remain above 1.4 billion people in the near future.

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