China’s population is shrinking. It faces a perilous future.

China will soon no longer be world’s most populous country—a title it has held for centuries—underscoring the daunting challenge it confronts to maintain its global dominance.

By Brook Larmer and Jane Zhang
Published 22 Mar 2023, 10:47 GMT
At a postnatal center in Hangzhou, caregivers tend to babies while their mothers recuperate. Private centers like this one offer new mothers who can afford it the time needed to recover, known as zuo yuezi in traditional Chinese medicine. The cost of raising children in modern China is a key factor in the country’s declining population.
Photograph by Justin Jin

It’s early autumn in central China, and the streets of Ding Qingzi’s village are turning into gold.

Thousands of husked corncobs lie in orderly rectangles in front of homes, their kernels drying in the sun. The harvest is one of the heartbeats of rural life in Anhui Province, a constant that Ding, 35, has known since childhood. Yet few other rhythms remain. Except for the corn, the streets are almost empty. Houses have been abandoned. The sounds of children have faded. And for years, Ding struggled to find a wife. Few young women still live in the village. Fewer still would marry a welder unable to buy a house or pay a bride-price. “My family is not rich,” Ding says.

Standing in her yard shucking corn, Ding’s aunt bemoans the plight of what she calls “leftover men.” The village has dozens of bachelors in their 30s and 40s, she says, lonely men like Ding, whose hopes for love and family collided with an unrelenting force: China’s demographic upheaval.

Chongqing, a sprawling industrial city in southwestern China, grew rapidly for many decades, spawning a still vibrant tradition of eating hot pot in crowded outdoor venues. The dense urban area’s population is estimated to be more than 17 million. As the region developed, subways were built above- and belowground to ease congestion.
Photograph by Justin Jin

After decades of a plunging birth rate, the country has begun an irreversible population decline that will reverberate throughout China and around the world for decades to come. Repercussions can already be felt in places like Anhui, where Ding’s search for a wife was also hindered by an acute gender imbalance. Around the time of his birth, 131 boys were born for every hundred girls in Anhui—a reflection of a traditional bias for sons exacerbated by Beijing’s now discarded one-child policy. Today China has a surplus of about 30 million men, more than half of marrying age.

The brutal mathematics threatened to squeeze Ding out of the marriage market. When he proposed to his first girlfriend, her parents balked because he couldn’t afford a new house. Ding’s parents scrounged for loans to buy a car and renovate an apartment in a nearby city—for the sole purpose of attracting a wife. The bride-price, a dowry paid to the wife’s family, would cost roughly $29,000 (£23,000). Even meeting a prospect’s parents can run $2,500 (£2,033). Over the years, a matchmaker was able to coax only a handful of women to go on blind dates with Ding. Humiliated by his failure, Ding began avoiding family gatherings. “They were unbearable,” he says. His relatives fixated on one topic: his lamentable status as a “bare branch,” the Chinese expression for a man who adds no fruit to the family tree.

A population shortage in a country of more than 1.4 billion people may seem paradoxical. China’s sense of identity and strength has been tied throughout its history to the staggering size of its population. When Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered a million labourers to build the Great Wall in the year 221 B.C., the grandiose endeavour befitted a dynasty that made up more than a quarter of the world’s people. Two millennia later, China’s emergence as a 21st-century superpower has been fuelled by its seemingly limitless supply of workers, hundreds of millions of whom have migrated to cities. (China now has 153 urban areas with a population estimated at more than a million; the United States has 50.) Four decades of dizzying economic growth has given China the aura of an unstoppable juggernaut powered by a population roughly equal in size to seven Nigerias, 42 Perus, or 140 Swedens.

Five-year-old Kong Niling visits her great-grandfather Lu Jinfu and great-grandmother Zhou Yafen in Shanghai. The couple had three children who each had one child in accordance with the one-child policy, but Niling is their only great-grandchild.
Photograph by Justin Jin

But China has reached a tipping point. Even by the government’s own reckoning, its population shrank last year—the beginning of a long fall that demographers predict will persist for the rest of the century. The main reason: China’s birth rate has plummeted to its lowest level since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Over the past seven years alone, the number of births has fallen by almost half, from 18 million in 2016 to 9.6 million in 2022. Even if the birth rate stabilises, experts say, China’s population will still fall 50 percent or more by 2100, when it might be only half as big as India’s and comparable in size to Nigeria’s.

The last time China’s population fell was during the cataclysmic famine of the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s ill-fated industrialisation campaign of the early 1960s, when some 30 million people died of starvation. This time, the drop has been triggered not by famine, war, or catastrophe but by rapid social and economic changes, the rising costs of getting married and raising children, and the restrictive one-child policy. As if to mark the moment, China’s centuries-long reign as the world’s most populous nation will come to an end this year, with India surging past it into the top position.

The fallout goes far beyond a symbolic changing of the guard. China’s shrinking population will likely slow, or even halt, the country’s seemingly inexorable march to global economic preeminence, even as it eases pressure on the planet’s environment. How will an already contracting workforce support an elderly population that is expected to nearly double over the next quarter century? And how will Beijing encourage births after suppressing them for more than three and a half decades? “This is an unprecedented, historical decline,” says Wang Feng, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. “By the end of the century, China will be quite unrecognisable in terms of what we know about China’s history and position in the world.”

China is not the only nation teetering on the population precipice. Falling birth rates and rising life expectancies have become hallmarks of industrialised urban economies, a combination that has turned demographic pyramids upside down from East Asia to Western Europe. China is roaring down a path being forged by its ageing neighbours, Japan and South Korea. In 2021 South Korea had the world’s lowest fertility rate, at 0.81 children per woman. China was not far behind at 1.16—barely half the “replacement rate” needed to maintain a stable population.

Li Guangyu and Pixie Lim take their dogs for a swim at a pet activity center in Shanghai. Li has a dog and three cats. He doesn’t want the responsibility of caring for children but dotes on his pets. “I am their father,” Li says. “I’m ready to sacrifice for them and give them time.”
Photograph by Justin Jin

China’s predicament, though, is uniquely daunting, not just by dint of its size and global influence but also by an unwelcome distinction: It will likely become the first country to grow old before it gets rich. Despite its emergence as the world’s second largest economy, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is still less than 40 percent of Japan’s and 20 percent of the U.S.’s.

The breakneck speed of China’s transformation pushed it toward the tipping point faster than other countries. But the one-child policy also proved to be an accelerant. Launched in 1980 to stave off a population boom, the program ended up hastening the arrival of the opposite result. Beijing dropped the policy in 2016, but the birth rate has continued to plummet.

On a planet whose population has doubled in the past 50 years, the burning question for China and more developed nations may seem strange: How can they avert a demographic collapse? Beijing is scrambling for answers. China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, has vowed to “improve the population development strategy” and “establish a policy system to boost birth rates.” Dealing with a demographic implosion will require more than another bout of social engineering. In China it could even force a reckoning on such thorny issues as gender equality, immigration, eldercare, and the limits of high technology. “No country has ever solved this problem,” says Yong Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This is a new chapter yet to be written for the human race.”

Tian Siguo, 80, and his wife, Hu Zhongzi, 77, tend a plot on the outskirts of Chongqing. In exchange for an apartment in a new high-rise, millions of farmers like them have surrendered their ancestral lands. The Chinese government is rapidly developing farmland on the edge of cities.
Photograph by Justin Jin

Shasha Yu’s parents, both farmers, cursed her for being a girl. “I never should have given birth to you,” she says her mother told her. Yu’s only happy memory from growing up in rural Shandong Province was the time she fell off a horse cart and woke up in the hospital to find her mother gently fanning her. So rare was that moment of tenderness, she says, “I was reluctant to open my eyes.”

Despite her dismal childhood, Yu did everything she could to win her parents’ approval. Among the first in her family to graduate from college, Yu rode the crest of China’s economic boom, landing a lucrative banking job and paying off her parents’ crippling loans. It was not enough. When Yu reached her late 20s, her mother berated her for bringing shame on the family by not being married and having children. Ever dutiful, Yu found a suitable boyfriend, a fellow banker with money and manners. “All I wanted was to prove myself to my parents,” she says.

But China’s economic transformation—and Yu’s own—changed her attitude toward marriage and children, as it has for millions of educated, upwardly mobile Chinese women (and many men). “I broke the tether of my parents’ traditional values,” Yu says.

Moving to Shanghai, she joined one of the fastest urbanisations in human history. (Sixty-five percent of Chinese now live in cities, up from 20 percent in 1980.) She split up with her boyfriend, rented and renovated an apartment, and began living on her own. The idea of marriage and children no longer seemed inevitable but rather a potential barrier to freedom and success. “I look at my parents’ and friends’ marriages,” Yu says dryly, “and I see nothing to envy.”

At the after-school center she founded in Shexian in Anhui Province, Mei Shuyun teaches children to write Chinese characters. Eight-year-old Jin Zixuan’s parents both have jobs and aren’t able to watch her during the workday.
Photograph by Justin Jin

Shasha Yu and Ding Qingzi are on opposite ends of China’s socioeconomic spectrum. Together, though, they help reveal why China’s marriage and birth rates have tumbled to their lowest levels in decades. In 2021 China registered 7.6 million marriages, a 43 percent drop from its 2013 peak—and the eighth consecutive year of decline. The change is driven partly by the gender imbalance and soaring marriage costs that thwarted Ding. But social scientists say it also reflects China’s fast-rising levels of education, wealth, and urbanisation—along with, as in Yu’s case, the assertion of women’s rights and autonomy. The COVID-19 pandemic and recurring lockdowns pushed the numbers down even further.

In late 2021 China’s Communist Youth League conducted a survey of 18- to 26-year-olds and found that 44 percent of women and 25 percent of men were unsure if they would marry. The percentages were highest for young women who, like Yu, live in China’s most modern cities. So disconcerting were the numbers to China’s leaders that the youth league has taken on the role of Cupid, staging ice-breakers and “love train” journeys to help single comrades find a spouse.

Yu almost got married twice. But now, at 35, she hangs out mostly with other professional women like herself: strong, independent, single. It took Yu years of self-exploration to get over the shame of not being married and to gain, she says, “a broader vision of the possibilities in life.” Her parents, however, still haven’t accepted that neither Yu nor her older sister is married. Back in Shandong, neighbours shamed the couple so much that they, too, felt compelled to move out of their home village.

Yi Dingrong (at left) and her husband, Zhao Bo, visit a historic area of Shanghai called the Bund with their children: 16-year-old Yanxi, three-year-old Shurui, and two-year-old Yikun. The couple, who own a Chinese medicine business, are among the few city dwellers affluent enough to have a large family. They had their first baby when the one-child policy was in effect. Once China scrapped it, they had two more. Yi finds having three children fulfilling. “There’s more energy, more self-disciplined learning,” she says.
Photograph by Justin Jin

To understand the sheer speed of China’s population reversal, it helps to turn the clock back to the 1970s, when much of the world was gripped by a Malthusian panic over the looming population explosion. The sense of peril was especially strong in China, where Mao for years had exhorted his people to produce more babies to make the motherland strong. China’s new leaders, under Deng Xiaoping, feared the fast-­expanding population would destroy the tendrils of economic growth and lead to another famine. “China was so poor in the 1970s that the leaders worried, ‘How are we going to feed the masses? How are we going to make the economy grow 
7 percent per year?’ ” UNC’s Cai says. “The fastest way was to limit the number of mouths to feed.”

That logic led to the social engineering experiment that for 36 years would impinge on the most intimate decisions of Chinese families. China’s leaders have claimed (without clear evidence) that the one-child policy prevented more than 400 million births, sparing the planet an enormous environmental burden and sparking the sustained economic boom that would lift more than 750 million Chinese out of poverty, according to the World Bank. The policy’s legion of critics, meanwhile, point to evidence that its intrusive restrictions resulted in millions of forced sterilisations, sex-selective abortions, and infanticides—and created an unbalanced population with too many men, too many older adults, and too few young people.

Demographers raise another question: Was the one-child policy even necessary? China’s fertility rate had already been falling sharply, from almost six children per woman in 1970 to less than three in 1980, the year the policy was implemented. “Nearly 75 percent of China’s fertility decline came before the one-child policy went into effect,” says Wang, of UC Irvine.

China, moreover, was primed for an economic explosion once it opened to the world. Powered by an enormous young workforce—a dividend of the Mao-era baby boom—the country raced to become, in a single generation, the world’s factory. Even without the one-child policy, Wang says, the economic boom and population decline would have come—albeit more slowly, more manageably, and without the gender inequities that deepen the crisis today. China’s leaders, however, stuck with the program until long after warning signals started flashing. “China reached below-replacement fertility rates in the early 1990s,” Wang explains, “so this has been getting worse for decades.”

Former concert violinist Song Xinxia teaches children in Shanghai. Well-off Chinese parents with only one child often pay for extracurricular activities to ensure future success for their son or daughter, adding to the expense of raising a child in today’s China.
Photograph by Justin Jin

When Beijing finally jettisoned the one-child policy in 2016, there was an expectation that pent-up desires for larger families would spark a new baby boom. No such luck. After a slight uptick, the number of births continued to nose-dive. Pandemic lockdowns and the economic slowdown only accelerated the fall—as Cai says, “adding snow to frost.”

In 2021, just weeks after new census figures revealed another steep drop in the birth rate, Beijing unveiled a new approach. “The Three-Child Policy Is Here!” trumpeted a state-media headline. “Would You Like to Give Birth?” An online poll conducted by the state-run Xinhua news service did not bode well. Of the first 30,500 respondents, 28,000 reportedly said they would “never consider” having three children. The poll quickly disappeared from the website, but the scepticism that greeted the patriotic campaign could no longer be hidden. “If people can’t afford one or two children,” asks demographer Xiujian Peng of Australia’s Victoria University, “how could they afford to have three?”

Scarlett Cai and her husband might seem like ideal candidates for the next baby boom. In their sleek Shanghai apartment, the affluent young couple already dote on three dependents—of the feline variety—as they dance around the question of children. Over the years Cai’s mother has warned her about dual-income, no-kids couples (DINKs, in the parlance) who tried to have children too late. The last time her mother nagged her, Cai, who is now 36, erupted: “I’m not living my life only to give birth to a child!”

Still, the couple have weighed the pros and cons. Spiralling costs are one obstacle in a competitive environment where parents feel pressure to spend lavishly on their children. An estimate from 2019 put the average price tag for raising a child at £61,000, seven times China’s GDP per capita. In Shanghai the cost was twice that. The expense doesn’t trouble Cai as much as the investment of time and energy—and the invasion of privacy. “I can’t adapt to a living space with an extra person,” she says.

Wan Liping (center), a retired doctor, practices with other older women in Nanjing for a show billed as Beautiful Mother Fashion Week. The women say they had little opportunity to express themselves or celebrate their beauty growing up in a more tradition-bound China.
Photograph by Justin Jin

For a long time, Cai saw the decision not to have children as a sort of feminist rebellion. Growing up, she saw many women marry young, quit their jobs, and lose their identities in children and chores. “Since I was a girl, I’ve seen too many invisible women,” she says. “I always wondered, Why does it have to be this way?” She read Simone de Beauvoir, studied philosophy, and found in her husband a kindred spirit. “Over the years, my husband and I reached a consensus,” she says. “Human beings don’t have an absolute need to reproduce.”

But last autumn, Cai felt, unbidden, a vague longing for a child. Moved by the especially hard toll the long zero-COVID lockdowns took on the elderly, she found comfort in the thought of growing older with a son or daughter, “someone close to us.” That feeling disappeared in December, though, when the government’s sudden lifting of the lockdown policy led to the lightning-fast spread of COVID and chaos at hospitals. “If we try to have a baby now, the risk would be too big, the pressure too great,” she says. “For the good of the child, it’s better not to bring him or her into the world.”

The pensioners gather every morning under sycamore trees in a Shanghai park. A circle of grey-haired women often dances in unison to a tinny song emanating from a portable speaker. Another group moves silently through the flowing motions of tai chi. A man with a large calligraphy brush sometimes writes poems on the paving stones with water, his masterful strokes visible only briefly before they disappear.

One recent day a 69-year-old retiree sat on a park bench, watching her fellow seniors finish their exercises. The woman, who said her surname was Dong but declined to provide her given name, had toiled for decades in a plastic manufacturing plant, one of the workers who powered the early years of China’s industrial expansion. She now spends most of her time caring for her granddaughter, bringing her to and from school and cooking her dinner every day. “If I don’t help my daughter look after the kid,” Dong says, “she won’t be able to work.” As a token of gratitude, her daughter pays her £244 a month.

In a vivid display of how gender roles are shifting in urban areas, women at a Shanghai karaoke bar enjoy the company of Liu Yujia, a male escort hired for their night out. Young professional women in China are increasingly choosing their careers and social lives over settling down to marry and have children.
Photograph by Justin Jin

Dong represents the convergence of two of China’s most disturbing trend lines: the shrinking labour pool and the exploding elderly population. Because of the declining birth rate, there are fewer and fewer young workers to replace people like Dong, who retired at 50. China’s workforce started contracting nearly a decade ago, and demographers predict it will lose nearly 150 million workers by 2040.

The ranks of the elderly, meanwhile, are expected to grow by more than 200 million, from 13 percent of the population today to nearly a third by 2050. It’s not just the bubble of baby boomers hitting retirement age. China’s older adults, as the Shanghai parkgoers show, are staying healthier and living longer. Life expectancy in China has risen from 55 in 1970 to about 78 today—even higher than in the U.S. It’s a sign of great progress but creates a conundrum: How can China support a “super ageing” society?

China’s once sprawling families have telescoped into “4-2-1” structures: four grandparents and two parents with a single child. Though well suited for raising a child and building wealth, this arrangement becomes a top-heavy burden as family members grow old—a microcosm of the country’s broader challenge. China’s estimated 150 million only children, raised by six caregivers, will suddenly be responsible for supporting some or all of them. This dynamic is dragging down the economy, as a smaller workforce struggles to prop up the pension and health-care systems required by the expanding older population.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that the social pension for urban employees could run out by 2035. Even if policies change, the academy warns, the demographic deficit is “bound to bring very unfavourable socioeconomic consequences.” What has long seemed inevitable—China surpassing the U.S. as the world’s largest economy—is receding into the future. It may never happen at all.

The rising cost of child-rearing has led newlyweds Shi Lin and Guo Huanhuan, who live in Chongqing, to plan on having just one child, or perhaps none. Raising children, Guo thinks, is too demanding. “I want to give my child the best,” she says, “but I also want to have my own life and not be tied to childcare.”
Photograph by Justin Jin

What can China do? Given the demographic forces already in motion, there will be no way to avoid a sharp population drop. That is not all bad for the planet: It could help in the fight against climate change and ease pressure on China’s environment and overcrowded cities. Even so, Beijing is desperate to mitigate the economic impacts that could prevent China from achieving Xi’s goal of “common prosperity.” 

The simplest remedy is immigration. China, however, has one of the lowest immigration rates in the world. It has fewer than a million foreign-born people—just 0.06 percent of its population—and offers no viable path to citizenship. (The U.S., by contrast, has 45 million foreign-born residents, around 14 percent of the population.) The barriers to immigration in China’s largely homogeneous society are so high that there is only one place where non-Chinese immigration occurs: in the countryside, where thousands of women from Vietnam, Myanmar, and North Korea have been brought in, many illicitly, to become the brides of rural bachelors.

Ruling out immigration, Beijing is pursuing three options that could be called, in Communist Party fashion, the Three Raises: raising the retirement age, raising productivity, and raising the birth rate.

China’s mandatory retirement ages—set more than seven decades ago when life expectancy was barely half of what it is today—are among the youngest in the world: 50 for women, except those working in offices, who retire at 55, and 60 for men. Moving that threshold to 65 for both men and women would help, immediately shifting the balance of workers and retirees. “Raising the retirement age is an effective policy in the short to medium term,” says Peng, the Victoria University demographer. One problem: It’s deeply unpopular. When Beijing floated the idea in 2008, it fizzled because of public resistance. China’s leaders now see no choice but to try again.

Raising productivity may prove even trickier. To counteract a dwindling workforce, Beijing is banking not only on its decades of investment in education to produce higher quality workers—but also on high technology. China is the fastest growing market for industrial robots and one of the world’s leaders in artificial intelligence. The government predicts that robots could eventually perform the tasks of 240 million workers. But high tech is no panacea. “Robots and automation will mitigate the negative effect of a declining population,” Peng says. “But they can’t replace workers in all areas.”

The hardest task will be to raise the birth rate. Making China “a fertility-friendly society,” as the state-run Global Times puts it, would be a long-term solution. Local governments have been pushing new incentives for the three-child policy: tax cuts, housing subsidies, longer maternity leave, expanded childcare services, even, in some provinces, cash bonuses. So far, none of it seems to have worked. The birth rate fell further last year as the pandemic and economic downturn made planning for the future more fraught. Conditioned by the one-child policy—and confronted by ever rising costs—families seem unwilling to have more than one child, if they want any at all. “The financial pressure is too big,” says Dong, the retiree taking care of her granddaughter. “To raise one child well is enough.”

Ding Qingzi had all but given up on marriage when he received a call in late 2021 from his matchmaker. She had found a woman in Anhui Province who was willing to meet him. There was only one—well, two—hitches: The woman was divorced, and she had a six-year-old daughter. Ding was wary. A few years earlier, a divorced woman had feigned romantic interest only to scam him out of thousands of dollars. Still, after struggling on the marriage market for so many years, what choice did he have?

When they met, Ding—normally shy and taciturn—found himself conversing easily. His date was open and kind, he says, and she seemed honest. It didn’t take him long to ask her to “settle down.” “I made up my mind that this was going to be my last blind date,” he says. “If it didn’t work out this time, I’d drop the marriage issue.” The woman felt rushed, but her family figured it would be hard for a divorced mother to find a reliable man. And besides, Ding’s family had gone into debt to pay the full bride-price.

When the couple got married last year, Ding says he couldn’t stop thinking, I finally have this big life thing figured out! The introvert made a long speech at the reception, and his parents, he says, “cried their eyes out.” Since then, Ding’s life has been transformed. He has gained weight, and he has started attending family gatherings again, now accompanied by his wife and stepdaughter. And he is proud he will no longer be a bare branch subject to gossip and ridicule: Ding and his wife are preparing to have a child of their own—a tiny heartbeat of hope in a land of missing children.

Brook Larmer has reported on China for two decades and lived there for 12 years. Freelance writer Jane Zhang is based in Shanghai. Photographer Justin Jin was born in Hong Kong and has been documenting the rapid changes in China for 25 years.

This story appears in the ​April 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.


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