China is set to report its first population decline since the famine that accompanied the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s disastrous economic policy in the late 1950s that caused the deaths of tens of millions of people.

The current fall in population comes despite the relaxation of strict family planning policies, which was meant to reverse the falling birth rate of the world’s most populous country.

The latest Chinese census, which was completed in December but has yet to be made public, is expected to report the total population of the country at less than 1.4bn, according to people familiar with the research. In 2019, China’s population was reported to have exceeded the 1.4bn mark.

The people cautioned, however, that the figure was considered very sensitive and would not be released until multiple government departments had reached a consensus on the data and its implications.

“The census results will have a huge impact on how the Chinese people see their country and how various government departments work,” said Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think-tank. “They need to be handled very carefully.”

Column chart of Population (million) showing China

The government was scheduled to release the census in early April. Liu Aihua, a spokesperson at the National Bureau of Statistics, said on April 16 that the delay was partly due to the need for “more preparation work” ahead of the official announcement. The delay has been widely criticised on social media.

Local officials have also braced for the data’s release. Chen Longgan, deputy director of Anhui province’s statistics bureau, said in a meeting this month that officials should “set the agenda” for census interpretation and “pay close attention to public reaction”.

Analysts said a decline would suggest that China’s population could soon be exceeded by India’s, which is estimated at 1.38bn. A fall in population could exact an extensive toll on Asia’s largest economy, affecting everything from consumption to care for the elderly.

“The pace and scale of China’s demographic crisis are faster and bigger than we imagined,” said Huang. “That could have a disastrous impact on the country.”

China’s birth rates have weakened even after Beijing relaxed its decades-long family planning policy in 2015, allowing all couples to have two children instead of one. The population expanded under the one-child policy introduced in the late 1970s, thanks to a bulging population of young people in the aftermath of the Communist revolution as well as increased life expectancy.

Independent scholars believe tens of millions of people died during the Great Leap famine between 1959 and 1961, when Mao ordered the entire nation to make steel in backyard furnaces and crops were exported and hoarded even as millions starved.

But the ruling communist party still outlaws detailed discussion of that period and most publicly available data sets obscure the population decline at that time.

Government figures show the population declined by around 13.5m between 1959 and 1961, although that is believed to be a serious underestimate.

Official data showed the number of newborns in China increased in 2016 but then fell for three consecutive years. Officials blamed the decline on a shrinking number of young women and the surging costs of child-rearing.

The real picture could be even worse. In a report published last week, China’s central bank estimated that the total fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman was likely to have in her lifetime, was less than 1.5, compared with the official estimate of 1.8.

“It is almost a fact that China has overestimated its birth rate,” the People’s Bank of China said. “The challenges brought about by China’s demographic shift could be bigger [than expected].”

A Beijing-based government adviser who declined to be identified said such overestimates stemmed in part from the fiscal system’s use of population figures to determine budgets, including for education and public security.

“There is an incentive for local governments to play up their [population] numbers so they can get more resources,” the person said.

The situation has led to calls for a radical overhaul of China’s birth control rules. The PBoC report suggested the government should “completely” abandon its “wait-and-see attitude” and scrap family planning entirely.

“Policy relaxations will be of little use when no one wants to have [more children],” the paper said.

This story has been amended to reflect the fact that the current population decline in China is the first since the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, when tens of millions of people died of starvation. An earlier version said it was the first decline since records began in 1949.

Letter in response to this article:

China’s population decline hurts its global ambitions / From Ira Sohn, Emeritus Professor of Economics and Finance, Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, US