China may have blunted the pandemic’s impact on its economy, but a shortfall in babies is clouding its growth horizon. In the short term, the Chinese economy looks comparatively strong —helped by its quick stamping out of the virus’s spread and heavy state investment—and some economists earlier this year predicted that China could overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by 2028, years earlier than expected.
But the world’s most populous country is losing when it comes to demographics. Ahead of the results of China’s once-a-decade census, there have been several indications that fewer babies were born in the country in 2020 than in any year since 1961, when China suffered mass starvation.
A report from Capital Economics this month says it is possible that slowing productivity growth and a shrinking workforce would prevent China from ever overtaking the U.S., or that if it does, the U.S. would regain the top spot again, helped by immigration that keeps refilling its supply of workers.
Mark Williams, a London-based economist at Capital Economics, compared it with il sorpasso, Italy’s moment of pride in the late 1980s when it overtook the U.K., only to drop back again.
China’s workforce is expected to shrink by more than 0.5% a year, the Capital Economics report said, as fewer young people replace a growing number of retirees. In the U.S., by contrast, the workforce is expected to expand through the next 30 years, supported by higher fertility than in China and by immigration.
The median estimate in a Wall Street Journal survey of demographers and economists was for a 15% drop in 2020 births from 14.65 million in 2019. The most restrained estimate was for a 10% drop.
When China published on Sunday the estimate for its 2020 per-capita gross domestic product, the equivalent of about $11,200, demographers said the numbers indicated that China’s population rose only slightly last year. Details on total population, births and deaths aren’t expected until China releases census results in April.
Several cities have already reported big birth declines. Wenzhou, Hefei and Ningbo, with populations of around eight million to nine million each, said births last year fell 19%, 23% and 12%, respectively.
The Ministry of Public Security said earlier this month that a little over 10 million newborns were registered under China’s household-registration system in 2020, down 15% from 2019. Not all babies are registered with the local police, but the data was still a harbinger of a big drop in official birth numbers.