• Bloomberg, AFP-JIJI


China’s birthrate last year dropped to the lowest level since at least 1949 and the labor force continued to shrink, the latest sign of slowing growth prospects for the world’s second-largest economy.

The number of births per 1,000 people declined to 10.48, the lowest level on record according to National Bureau of Statistics data going back to when the Communist Party took power. China’s working-age population — those aged 16 to 59 — declined by 890,000, figures released Friday showed. The number of newborns in 2019 fell to 14.65 million, a decrease of 580,000 from the year before.

China’s overall population totaled 1.4 billion as of the end of 2019.

China has struggled to arrest the country’s declining birthrate for years, easing its stringent one-child policy in 2013 and allowing each family to have two children in 2016. Still, top leaders have resisted calls to fully lift restrictions on the number of babies each family can have even as the birthrate in 2018 has dropped to lows unseen since the turmoil of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. Many young couples are reluctant to have children because they cannot afford to raise them.

Meanwhile, divorce rates are hitting records.

In the first three quarters of 2019, about 3.1 million couples filed for divorce, compared with 7.1 million couples getting married, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

“The historically low number of births in part reflects declining birth numbers since the 1990s, but also reveals something much more profound about the social transformations that are still unfolding in China, and can be worrisome,” said Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California at Irvine.

Domestic migration on a massive scale, rapid urbanization, a cutthroat work culture, the high cost of housing and education and rampant gender discrimination all contribute to the low birthrate and may continue to do so for decades to come, Wang said.

Local authorities have addressed the demographic issues at annual legislative sessions currently taking place across China. Zhejiang, a wealthy eastern province, pledged to prioritize increasing child-care service for children under 3.

In central Henan province, a member of the provincial political consultancy body called for the immediate abolishment of so-called family planning regulation to encourage births in an interview with local media Sunday. Hu Peng, a researcher with state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, suggested integrating policies that would boost birthrates into projects.

Even if the government lifts all restrictions on childbirth, “that would only have a small impact on reversing the fertility trend, as the willingness to have three or more children is very low,” said He Yafu, a Guangdong-based demographer.

Meanwhile, the share of people older than 65 grew to 12.6 percent last year, compared with 11.9 percent in the prior year.

China’s population is aging more quickly than most of the world’s developed economies, a hangover from decades of family planning policies. In 2001, those 65 and older accounted for more than 7 percent of the country and the proportion has grown at a quicker pace each year ever since.

China’s elderly population is expected to grow by a total of 224 million between 2010 and 2040, with an average annual growth rate of 3.62 percent and net increase of 7.46 million, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates. Researchers also forecast China’s total population to begin to decline around 2028.

Chinese authorities have deliberated over raising the country’s retirement age, currently 60 for men and 55 for women, to cope with the shortage in the labor force and shortfall in the national pension fund, though no action has been taken yet.