Published: 10:22, June 13, 2023 | Updated: 17:52, June 13, 2023
Firm course charted for modernization
By Wang Xiaoyu

Development model to counter low birthrate, aging population


China's new demographic development model, which prioritizes improving the overall quality of people's lives and the workforce, will help propel modernization, officials and experts said.

The model is expected to combine the nation's conventional strength of a huge labor supply with a new focus on further enhancing health and education levels, maintaining an appropriate fertility rate, and promoting population movement based on economic growth needs, they said.

At the first meeting of the 20th Communist Party of China Central Committee's Commission for Financial and Economic Affairs early last month, President Xi Jinping stressed that population development is a vital issue related to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and efforts must be made to develop a higher-quality population to advance Chinese modernization.

Zhang Xuyin, deputy head of the China Population and Development Research Center, said, "The meeting sent a strong signal from China's top central leadership that the country's demography has entered a phase of promoting high-quality development, which will provide a solid bedrock and offer sustained impetus for modernization."

Those attending the meeting also pointed out the long-term trends of the nation's demographic development, including a low birthrate and aging population.

Zhou Haiwang, deputy head of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Urban and Demographic Studies, said that although China's population has undergone profound changes in past decades, the nation's advantages due to its massive population and rich labor resources will remain for some time.

"Meanwhile, the country is capable of reaping dividends by enhancing the quality of people and grooming talent to turbocharge the pace of modernization," he said.

In this undated photo, Lujiazui, the financial center in Shanghai, forms a perfect backdrop to the Bund area. (WANG GANG / CHINA DAILY)

Discussions about China's demographic changes and their impact on the economy have intensified this year, as the population dropped for the first time in more than six decades last year, with India projected to soon surpass China as the world's most populous nation.

In January, National Bureau of Statistics data showed that China's population fell by 850,000 year-on-year to 1.41175 billion by the end of last year, with a record low birthrate of 6.77 per 1,000 people.

In April, the UN said India is expected to overtake China by nearly 3 million people in the middle of this year to become the most populous country.

Despite the change, Zhou said China's population will continue to exceed those of all developed countries for years.

"Projections released by the UN in 2022 show that China's population will remain at around 1.4 billion in 2035 and 1.3 billion in 2049," he said. "Such a large population can be translated into a huge domestic market and add fuel to China's 'dual circulation' development paradigm (an approach that allows domestic and overseas markets to reinforce one another, with the domestic market as the mainstay)."

More significantly, Zhang, from the China Population and Development Research Center, said the nation's workforce will remain strong in terms of quantity and quality.

Official data show that China's working-age population stands at about 900 million, and 240 million of these people have received higher education.

"To put the figure of 240 million into perspective, it exceeds the combined populations of Germany, the United Kingdom and France," Zhang said.

In recent years, some 14 million people have entered the Chinese employment market each year, and on average they have received nearly 14 years of schooling.

"The intuitive reaction upon seeing a shrinking population is to anticipate a decrease in the labor force, but this viewpoint oversimplifies the complicated procedures for calculating labor supply," Zhang said.

Nurses take care of a newborn baby at a hospital in Anhui province, on Jan 1, 2023. (PHOTO / VCG) (PHOTO / IC)

More workers

Considering factors such as continuously rising education levels and the migration of unemployed rural workers to urban areas with improved production efficiency, Zhang said that size of the new labor force in China each year would continue to rise through 2036.

"Another inherent advantage of China is that the labor participation rates for men and women are relatively high compared with other countries. For example, in India, the rate of the female labor force participation is only one-third that in China," he said.

The Commission for Financial and Economic Affairs meeting also stressed that it is vital to maintain an appropriate birthrate and population size.

China's fertility rate, or the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime, fell below the replacement rate of 2.1 — the threshold for keeping a stable population — in the 1990s. The rate dropped from 1.52 in 2019 to 1.07 last year, the authorities said.

Zhang said, "There is no doubt that China's fertility rate is at a relatively low level, but we should also recognize that the nation has the potential to raise its fertility, and there is room for an increase as supportive policies aimed at encouraging births are gradually implemented nationwide."

In 2021, a National Bureau of Statistics survey showed that women of childbearing age in China prefer to have an average of 1.8 children, which is higher than the fertility rate.

Zhang said increased support should target vulnerable and middle-income groups.

Since May 2021, when the central leadership said it would allow couples to have up to three children, and emphasized the need for policies to motivate childbirth, local authorities have explored a range of measures, from extending maternity and paternity leave to issuing fertility subsidies.

"Experience from other countries suggests that low fertility is a long-term trend for many nations, including China, but that does not negate the necessity of these measures," Zhang said. "Supportive policies should be rolled out continuously to answer the demands of the public, and these policies will yield results in the long run."

The commission meeting also called for reforms to education and healthcare services, building a sound policy mechanism to support child bearing, developing human resources, actively tackling an aging society, and better coordinating the relationship between population, economy, society, resources and the environment.

An AI robot introduces exhibitors to visitors at the World Intelligence Congress in Tianjin. (JIA CHENGLONG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Yuan Xin, a demography professor at Nankai University in Tianjin, said China's human capital, or the quality of its population, has become stronger since the 1980s.

For example, the average life expectancy rose to 78.2 years in 2021 and key barometers for evaluating the state of the nation's health, including mortality rates for newborns and pregnant women, have all exceeded the average levels in upper-middle-income countries. China has also built the world's largest higher education system, Yuan said.

To nurture a better-skilled population and reap the rewards of its human capital, Cai Fang, chief expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' National High-end Think Tank, suggested extending China's nine-year free and compulsory education to 15 years.

In an interview with, he also called for reforms to narrow the gap in education quality between urban and rural areas. "Cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, or AI, also pose fresh requirements for the education system. Methods such as rote learning should be upgraded," he said.

Zhou, from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said more resources should be devoted to cultivating high-end talent, such as that specializing in AI, chipmaking and finance, as well as people trained in care for the elderly, and other professions urgently needed in a rapidly aging society.

Experts also called for a more efficient distribution of human resources, including further increasing urbanization rates and developing industrial clusters.

Zhou said that last year, China's urbanization rate stood at 65.2 percent, and it is estimated to exceed 70 percent in 2030 and 75 percent in 2035. In some developed countries, the rate stands at 80 to 90 percent.

As migration from less developed and small regions to big cities and integrated development zones is set to increase and benefit economic development, Zhou suggested gradually removing restrictions on school enrollment and property purchases linked to an individual's place of household registration.

To relieve pressure on mega-cities, he said the construction of urban infrastructure such as cross-city railways should be stepped up.

"For instance, commuters living in Kunshan city, an emerging economic powerhouse in Jiangsu province, who work in Shanghai, now travel nearly 30 stops on the subway. A direct train service connecting these two regions could further advance development of the urban cluster,"" Zhou said.