HONG KONG — China said Tuesday that its population declined last year for the first time in six decades, a historic shift with profound implications for the world’s second-largest economy.

Officials with the National Bureau of Statistics said mainland China had 1,411.75 billion people at the end of 2022, compared with 1,412.6 billion a year earlier, a decrease of 850,000. There were a total of 9.56 million births, a record low birth rate of 6.77 per thousand, and 10.41 million deaths.

The announcement was part of a broader release of economic data for 2022, a year in which President Xi Jinping’s strict «covid zero» policies weighed heavily on growth. Officials reported a 3% increase in gross domestic product, beating expectations but still one of the weakest numbers in decades.

The economy is expected to improve in 2023 as China emerges from pandemic lockdown, Kang Yi, director of the National Bureau of Statistics, said at a press conference in Beijing.

The number of births in China has been declining for about a decade, undermining the ruling Communist Party’s consumption-led growth model and raising questions about whether China can overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. The United Nations has said that India will overtake China as the world’s most populous nation by the end of this year.

China’s 9.56 million births are a nearly 10% decline from 2021, when around 10.6 million babies were born. The death rate of 7.37 per 1,000 people increased from 7.18 in 2021, when China recorded 10.14 million deaths.

As in other countries, declining births means an aging workforce for China, which has built its economic power largely on a manufacturing sector that relies on cheap labor. Officials said Tuesday that working-age people between the ages of 16 and 59 made up 62% of the national population, up from 70% a decade ago, while people 60 and older made up nearly 20%.

One of the main reasons for China’s population decline is the rise of the middle class, said Kent Deng, professor of economic history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“Once you have well-skilled and well-educated urban people, they will decide not to produce many children,” he said, especially given China’s rising cost of living.

Covid is also thought to have played a role, although China appears to have experienced the vast majority of its cases and deaths in recent months. Following international criticism that it has not been transparent about the severity of its current outbreak, China said over the weekend that it had recorded nearly 60,000 Covid-related deaths since early December, when it abruptly ended three years of anti-COVID measures. covid after rare mass protests. . Experts say the true death toll could reach 1 million or more in the coming months.

The total number of deaths from all causes in China in December is not yet known, Kang said, and is not reflected in 2022 population statistics.

The figures announced Tuesday are the start of what is expected to be a long decline in China’s population, which the UN says could hit 800 million by the end of the century. By contrast, the US population is projected to increase from the current 337 million, primarily through immigration.

The world’s total population reached 8 billion in November, according to the UN.

Although many countries around the world are experiencing population declines, this is the first time China’s population has contracted since 1961, after a three-year famine triggered by then-leader Mao Zedong’s industrialization drive, which is estimated that killed tens of millions of people. .

The country then experienced explosive growth during the second half of the 20th century, with its population more than doubling. Concerned that overpopulation could harm development, Chinese officials introduced a series of reproductive restrictions centered on the «one-child policy,» which ran from 1980 to 2015.

While the one-child policy was effective in curbing population growth, critics say it resulted in rights abuses and a disproportionate number of men compared to women, especially in the countryside. It also fundamentally changed Chinese ideas about family size, Deng said, as parents realized they could achieve upward social mobility by investing more in just one child’s education.

“They can see the result, because they can send their children to the best schools and then to the best universities,” he said.

Chinese officials have anticipated the demographic crisis, allowing couples to have two children since 2016 and up to three children since 2021. A national policy document issued last year encouraged employers to provide childcare and flexible work arrangements and local governments to offer preferential housing and others. incentives Xi promised additional measures to increase the birth rate at a party congress in October.

But the public has responded largely with indifference. A study published last year by the YuWa Population Research Institute, a Beijing-based think tank, found that Chinese people’s desire to have children was among the lowest in the world.

The best way to reverse the trend, Deng said, is to provide family allowances of the type offered by some governments in Europe.

“It takes a lot of resources to persuade young Chinese that it is actually profitable to have a second child,” he said.

The relative lack of support makes motherhood especially unappealing to young urban women like Beijing resident Nora Yang, who said she is «80%» against having her own children.

“The work environment is really hostile for mothers,” said Yang, 24. «Once you have a baby, it’s really hard to progress further in your career.»

Yang agreed with Deng that the government is not doing enough to change his mind.

If Chinese officials really want to encourage children, they should «give money to those who have more babies,» he said. «Otherwise, they will fail.»