August 21, 2023 - 1:00pm

The fall in Chinese birthrates might be the biggest story of the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the data — or lack thereof — has been found wanting. A must-read analysis by Liyan Qi for the Wall Street Journal points out that China’s National Bureau of Statistics “stopped releasing annual data on total fertility rate in 2017”.

That’s par for the course in the People’s Republic. Once a situation becomes embarrassing to the country’s leadership, official information starts disappearing fast. Qi cites the suspension of the rising youth unemployment figures as another example. Then there’s the cover-up surrounding the origins of the Covid pandemic. 

However, the news blackout isn’t quite complete. Both the WSJ and Reuters report on the release of a study by China’s National Health Commission which shows that, in 2022, the country’s total fertility rate (TFR) was just 1.09.

The TFR of a population is an estimate of the number of children that will, on average, be born to each woman over her lifetime. Leaving aside non-reproductive factors like immigration, it would take a TFR of just over 2 to keep a population stable. A TFR of just over 1 is therefore wholly inadequate. If sustained over decades, it means that each generation will be little more than half the size of the one before it.

Of course, China isn’t the only country in world with a diminishing birth rate. For instance, the latest UK TFR is just 1.59 — a 20-year low. And yet the speed of the decline in China is extraordinary. The Wall Street Journal analysis features the work of the demographer Yi Fuxian. He expects fewer than 8 million births this year, compared to the 18 million recorded in 2016. Being a teacher must be one of the most insecure jobs in China.

This is not some “future shock” scenario. The most populous nation on the planet is undergoing a demographic collapse — one that we can see unfolding, not decade-by-decade, but year-by-year.

Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for recovery. Marriage registrations have fallen to a record low. This matters to fertility because, as in most of north-east Asia, births out of wedlock are rare. Indeed, until recently, it was illegal for a Chinese couple to start a family without being married.

As for inward migration, that too is rare in China. The country has just one million foreign-born residents, which is is less than 0.1% of the population. The state’s treatment of its native ethnic and religious minorities isn’t exactly a draw for outsiders.

The irony is that the Chinese government is wasting its time by hiding the truth. The West is blasé about its own demographic decline — and even less bothered by what’s happening in the East. If Beijing fesses up to one of the lowest TFRs on the planet, we won’t bat an eyelid. 

Aside from a few contrarians like Elon Musk, we’ll go on ignoring the world’s most important numbers.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.