China’s population fell by two million in 2023, marking the second straight year of decline. Statistics suggest that China’s total fertility rate, which has steadily declined from 1.5 births per woman in the late 1990s to 1.15 in 2021, is now approaching 1.0—far below the replacement level of 2.1 that would maintain current population levels. Naturally, China’s trajectory is far from unique. It is following the broad pattern seen throughout East Asia, with birth rates declining to the lowest in the world, and national populations poised to age rapidly in the coming decades. Such trends point to major economic, social, and political challenges ahead for both China and the region—including increasingly unsustainable pension systems, surging eldercare needs, and rapidly aging workforces.
Perhaps unappreciated is the extent to which current official population projections actually underestimate the extent of these challenges, precisely because they bake in shaky statistical assumptions that fertility rates will “rebound” in coming decades. China’s own long-term plans include similar assumptions. The 2016-2030 population development plan issued by the State Council assumes that China’s fertility rates will rise from 1.5-1.6 (in 2015) to around 1.8 by 2020 and 2030. Wenzhou’s corresponding municipal plan issued in 2022 assume that the total fertility rate will rise back to around 1.35 by 2035.
Absolutely nothing like these trends have been observed anywhere in East Asia over the past decades. Indeed, fertility rates are going in exactly the opposite direction. Fertility rates in Taiwan and South Korea, which hovered in the 1.1-2 zone in the early years of the 21st century, have steadily declined over the past two decades—reaching 0.87 in Taiwan (for 2022) and 0.72 for South Korea (in 2023). Even Japan, which had registered total fertility rates between 1.3 and 1.4 since the late 1990s, is now in the seventh year of a steady decline, reaching 1.26 in 2022.
China and East Asia’s descent to ultra-low fertility suggests far more rapid societal aging than current projections indicate. But by pinning their hopes on unfounded assumptions about a future rebound in national fertility rates, policymakers may be weakening their ability to appreciate the extent of the coming challenges posed by rapid demographic change, and undermining their ability to respond to the practical governance challenges that will result.