A man pulls a child past a Lunar New Year decoration on display at the Qianmen pedestrian shopping street, a popular tourist spot in Beijing, on Tuesday.

A man pulls a child past a Lunar New Year decoration on display at the Qianmen pedestrian shopping street, a popular tourist spot in Beijing, on Tuesday. / AP

Updated January 17, 2023 at 4:04 PM ET

China has recorded its first population decline in decades in what some experts have called a "sea change" for a country intent on growing its economy and increasing its birth rate.

According to data published Tuesday by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the population of mainland China was 1.411 billion people at the end of 2022, a decrease of 850,000 over the previous year.

Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, told NPR's Morning Edition that the shrinkage could complicate China's plans for continued economic expansion.

"The era of rapid growth, double-digit growth, of cheap labor, of a younger labor force – that era is now really at a close," Gietel-Basten said.

Long the world's most populous country, China could soon see its population surpassed by fast-growing India. In 2022, according to U.N. data, India had a population of 1.4066 billion, just trailing China's 1.4485 billion

The last time China is believed to have seen its population dip was during a tumultuous period known as the Great Leap Forward that began in the late 1950s.

China's infamous one-child policy limited births for decades

China's fertility rates were already decreasing in the 1970s, and by 1980 the Chinese government formally instituted the controversial one-child policy, legally restricting families from having more than one baby. The policy was intended to further limit China's population growth and help stimulate an economic boom.

Ultimately it resulted in low fertility rates and a large aging population. Last year, China saw more deaths than births, according to government data publicized this week. Officials said 10.41 million people died while 9.56 million were born.

In 2015, China ended the one-child policy and began allowing married couples to have two children. It expanded the allowance again in 2021, permitting up to three kids.

Yun Zhou, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, told NPR that China's recent attempts to reverse course and encourage families to have more children haven't worked.

"From my own research, what I've seen is women often resisted and often prioritized their paid employment and prioritized their pursuit of individualistic ideals over this sustained incentivization," Zhou said.

"But since China is an authoritarian country, it remains to be seen just to what extent and how extreme the state will actually go in trying to incentivize births."

Zhou also noted that though the Chinese government has been encouraging married heterosexual couples to have more children, LGBTQ people and unmarried people are often omitted from official policies.

The COVID pandemic also put a strain on China's fertility rate

After COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China, the resulting lockdowns across the world caused far-reaching economic pain and social isolation.

That was especially true in China, the world's second-largest economy, where in some cases people were confined to their homes for days or even weeks as strict pandemic lockdowns were instituted to slow the spread of the virus.

Gietel-Basten said China has had to struggle with the economic insecurity caused by the pandemic as well as "the challenges of working from home and having a family under these challenging circumstances, which has been particularly difficult in China."

But he added that China's shrinking population doesn't necessarily mean the country will see its economic growth shrivel.

The government has already been investing in services for its aging population, Gietel-Basten noted, and it will try to increase productivity among the many workers it still has.

"There's really still a lot of levers that can be pulled in China," he said.

Zhou said that if China's population continues to decline and its economy slows, it could lead the country and its leaders to view China's place in the world differently. The government may project an "even more nationalistic imaginary" or, on the other hand, put a renewed emphasis on social stability, she suggested.

"This is truly an open question and truly remains to be seen how the Chinese Communist Party will react," she said. "Although it has been a long time coming, we are on the cusp of a sea change."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


A previous version of this story said that Khalifa University was in Dubai. In fact, it is located in Abu Dhabi.