Data Lab | China’s conundrum: Falling marriage, birth rate taking its economy for a spin?

Marriages in China reached a historic low in 2022, amid its declining birth rate and population. The Ministry of Civil Affairs of China reported that 6.8 million couples registered marriages in 2022, a 10.5 per cent decrease from 2021 when 7.63 million marriages were registered. This is the lowest figure since 1986, when the Chinese government started documenting these statistics. 

As authorities struggle to deal with these demographic changes, fewer couples are getting married. This decline can be attributed to the Covid pandemic restrictions that kept tens of millions confined to their homes or compounds for weeks last year, but that isn’t the sole reason.

“Covid restrictions are not the main cause of decline in marriage rates or birth rates. In fact, this is a phenomenon evolving in China prior to the Covid pandemic, as the working age population in China started to decline way back in 2012, and by 2017 there was a phenomenon of ‘labour shortage’ in China,” Dr Geeta Kochhar, Assistant Professor, Centre for Chinese and South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University told WION. 

Covid made the matter worse. Numerous additional factors were at play, including the empowerment of women, increasing cost-of-living, changes in the state welfare system, the nature of social relations altering, the high cost of raising children, and the high prevalence of urban unemployment. All of these elements have progressively changed the Chinese culture and the way that people see the institution of marriage and raising children, she adds. 

For the first time in 60 years, China’s population dwindled, prompting predictions that the nation would age before becoming rich.

It was in the year 1961, during Mao Zedong’s era that China’s population decreased year to year. Millions of people died as a result of his failed economic policies known as the Great Leap Forward, however this forced slowdown in population growth only lasted a short period.

However, many analysts predict that the current decline in birth rates, which was exacerbated by the one-child policy, a state-led initiative to reduce population between 1980 and 2016, will be long-lasting and probably have irreversible ramifications. 

“There is no denial that the one-child policy that began in the 1980s and carried out for more than two decades has led to a complete chaos in social order and the structure of the Chinese society. It has in ways wiped out a whole generation of Chinese population, who could have formed the active young labour force,” explains Kochhar. 

She also argues that the context and timing of when this regulation was implemented had its own rationale and need. 

“The Chinese economy during the early 1980s was unable to bear the burden of rising population, but the mistakes were to impose forced sterilisation and strict fines. A moderate adjustment would have gone a long way for China to avert the present economic challenges. The Chinese state went way too far,” she adds. 

China and Japan ageing the same way?

China joined a group of significant Asian economies dealing with the same tendency as its population plummeted last year. The nations that are ageing most quickly globally are Japan and South Korea, with South Korea having the lowest fertility rate.

Note: This is an interactive chart. Please hover over the screen to get the figures. 

In the most fortunate nations, ageing occurs when the nation is still reasonably rich, allowing many of its senior citizens to live comfortably in retirement. For instance, Japan’s median income peaked in the late 1980s, at a time when its “bubble economy” was coming to an end, well before the population started to plateau. China, however, faces this population issue in a totally different economic setting. 

“China is in the process of transitioning from a labour-intensive economy to a technology driven economy,” says Kochhar. 

“We need to see if China is able to make the transition to a high-tech economy rapidly or not? This will reduce the burden on the economy as it won’t be dependent on the labour force alone. However, the burden on the social welfare system of China will multiply, which is already market driven and dependent on public participation. Yet, considering the nature of the Chinese state, it won’t be surprising in case the government chooses excessive pressure to force women to produce more children. Actions and policy changes will all depend on the pragmatic changes in China and on the domestic researchers’ output for the adjustments needed to boost the Chinese economy,” she continues.

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