China's birth rate plummeted for a fifth consecutive year to hit a new record low in 2021, despite government efforts to encourage couples to have more children in the face of a looming demographic crisis.
The world's most populous country recorded 10.62 million births last year, or only 7.5 births per 1,000 people, according to China's National Bureau of Statics, marking the lowest level since the founding of Communist China in 1949.
The number of births was just enough to outnumber deaths, with the population growing by 480,000 to 1.4126 billion. The natural growth rate fell to 0.034%, the lowest since China's great famine from 1959 to 1961, which killed tens of millions of people and led to a population decline.
New births in 2021 dropped 11.6% from 12.02 million in 2020- a gentler decline than the 18% plunge that year, from 14.65 million in 2019. Chinese demographer has warned that China's population could stark shrink soon if the downward trend continues.
Ning Jizhe, head of the National Bureau of Statistics, told state media Monday the decline in births stemmed from a combination of factors from "a decrease in the number of women of childbearing age, a continued decline in fertility, changes in attitudes toward childbearing age, a continued decline in fertility changes in attitudes toward childbearing and delays of marriage by young people," including due to the pandemic.
To arrest the falling birth rate, the Chinese Government announced in 2015 that it would allow married couples to have two children. But after a brief uptick in 2016, the national birth rate has been falling year on year, prompting authorities last year to loosen the policy to three children further.
Ning, the Chinese statistics official, said in 2021, 43% of the children born were the second child in a family. He told the three-child policy is expected to add births gradually and that "China's total population will remain above 1.4 billion for some time to come."
For decades, local governments forced millions of women to abort pregnancies deemed illegal by the state under the one-child policy. Last year more than 20 provincial or regional governments amended their family planning laws, including extending maternity leave for women. The high cost of raising children is also deterring parents from having more of them, especially among the country's growing middle class.
China's high property prices and rising education costs, especially in big cities, have frequently been cited in surveys as the top factors preventing coupled from having more children.
This year, both sectors have been thrust into the spotlight with the debt crisis surrounding properly giant Evergrande and the Chinese Government's sweeping crackdown on the private tutoring industry.