Beijing, the sprawling Chinese capital and one of the world’s biggest cities, saw its population drop last year for the first time in 19 years as the country grapples with a demographic crisis decades in the making.
The city’s population of permanent residents fell from 21.88 million in 2021 to 21.84 million in 2022, a decline of 84,000. The number of migrants in Beijing – many of whom leave their rural homes to find work in the city – also fell from 2021 to 2022.
The last time Beijing saw more deaths than births was 2003, when the fatal severe respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak emerged in southern China and ultimately infected more than 8,000 people around the world.
Last year’s drop is a relatively small one, with the population’s natural growth rate dropping to -0.05 per thousand residents, according to official data.
But it represents a larger problem seen across the country – China’s national population also shrank last year for the first time since the great famine in 1961.
There are a combination of factors behind the drop: the far-reaching consequences of the one-child policy China introduced in the 1980s (but has since abandoned); changing attitudes toward marriage and family among Chinese youth; entrenched gender inequality and the challenges of raising children in China’s expensive cities.
These issues are exacerbated by entrenched gender roles that often place the bulk of housework and child care on women – who, more educated and financially independent than ever, are increasingly unwilling to bear this unequal burden.
The result has been years of stubbornly falling birth rates, as well as rising death rates as the country’s elderly population swells. The shrinking workforce has also prompted concerns about economic decline, which would pose a potential problem for the rest of the world, given China’s key role as the second-largest global economy.
Beijing is far from the only Chinese hub experiencing this decline. The northeastern province of Liaoning, part of China’s rust belt, saw more than twice as many deaths as births last year, with the population falling by 324,000, according to provincial authorities.
Various efforts by policymakers have so far failed to reverse the trend.
Authorities launched a multi-agency plan last year to strengthen maternity leave and offer tax deductions and other perks to families; some cities have offered longer paternity leave, boosted childcare services and even offered cash handouts for families who have a third child.
Weifang, a city in the central Shandong province, announced a new initiative earlier this week offering free public high school education for families’ third child, according to state media. And in January, the southwestern province of Sichuan announced it would drop restrictions on unmarried people having children, granting single parents access to benefits previously reserved for married couples.
But many activists, women and other critics have said it’s not enough to solve deep-rooted structural problems.
Frustrations rose during the pandemic, with many young Chinese fed up with the increasing pressure to have children – from a society and government that many say has provided them with little of the material and emotional security they need to raise a child.