China says population grew in 2020 after report of decline

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A man holds a child for photos near a cherry blossom tree in Beijing on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. China's population grew last year, the government said Thursday, April 29, 2021 following a news report a once-a-decade census might have found a decline, possibly adding to downward pressure on economic growth. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

BEIJING – China’s population grew last year, the government said Thursday, following a report that a census might have found a surprise decline, possibly adding to downward pressure on economic growth.

The National Bureau of Statistics gave no details in its one-sentence statement and said the population figure would be reported later. But the unusual decision to respond to the report by The Financial Times reflected the issue’s political sensitivity.

The Financial Times said people familiar with China’s 2020 census expect it to show the population, which edged above 1.4 billion in 2019, declined for the first time since famine in 1959-61 killed millions of people.

The ruling Communist Party has enforced birth limits to restrain population growth since 1980, but an outright fall would reduce the flow of workers into the economy when it is trying to shore up growth and reduce poverty.

“According to our understanding, in 2020, China’s population continued to grow,” the NBS said on its website.

China’s population has long been expected to peak and decline in line with trends in South Korea and other developing Asian economies. But researchers say China’s decline might start before it reaches their income levels.

Developed economies such as Japan and Germany also are trying to figure out how to support aging populations with shrinking workforces. But they can draw on decades of investment in factories, technology and foreign assets, while China has less wealth and its industries need young workers.

Researchers at the Chinese central bank argued in a report in March that the birth rate is lower than official estimates suggest, though they didn’t say total population had declined. To avert a labor shortage, they said, Beijing needs to make it easier and cheaper to raise children.