Births in China fell sharply last year as the coronavirus pandemic intensified the scale of the demographic challenge facing the world’s most populous nation.

They dropped 15 per cent from 2019, according to data from the country’s Ministry of Public Security, with 10.04m births in the country last year compared with 11.79m a year earlier based on household registrations.

The steep decline is the latest evidence of the demographic challenges facing China, where urbanisation and the historic one-child policy has resulted in a rapidly ageing population that will put pressure on public finances over coming decades.

“We’ve known for some time there would be a decline, but such a big drop was beyond our expectations,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think-tank. “We believe [last year’s decline] is related to Covid: that households are more worried now.”

In 2015, China’s leadership loosened its family planning restrictions in order to address looming demographic problems, but the two-child policy it implemented has failed to prop up birth rates.

Academics expect China to further relax its birth policies, but also warn the moves may come too late.

“It’s very clear from those numbers that the negative demographic spiral in which China finds itself is serious, is powerful, and will cause really large scale fundamental problems,” said Dariusz Kowalczyk, an economist at Crédit Agricole in Hong Kong.

Kowalczyk anticipates that the Chinese population will begin to shrink in 2027, which he says will “limit its share in global GDP” and its potential to challenge the US as the world’s leading superpower.

The MPS data does not capture newborns that are undocumented at the household level. Full demographic data from the country’s National Bureau of Statistics are set to be released at the end of the month.

Pessimism over the data contrasts with a recent economic boom in China following the pandemic. Gross domestic product grew by 2.3 per cent in 2020 in contrast to declines across other major economies, with the country’s industrial and export sectors flourishing.

Experts say that the country’s birth rate challenge will require additional policy measures.

“Although we might see a small bounceback in the next few years, the overall trend is one of long-term decline in birth rates,” said Huang. “To truly address this issue, we need to make it a policy priority, like poverty alleviation or battling Covid.”

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing