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Rarely has a census report received as much attention as the one China released this past May.

Given China’s long history of fiddling with demographic data, the one-month delay in releasing its 2020 census results was suspicious, to say the least. But it was what happened soon thereafter that effectively confirmed China’s bleak demographic reality.

Officially, China’s demographic situation is nothing to be alarmed about: The 2020 census showed that China’s population reached the expected level of 1.41 billion people in 2020, and continues to grow. And yet, less than a month after the census was released, Chinese authorities announced the loosening of family-planning rules, so that households can have three children, rather than two. They have now also put forward a more comprehensive plan for boosting the fertility rate.

These policy moves suggest that China’s demographic structure is actually much worse than the authorities would have us believe. Indeed, an analysis of the country’s age structure suggests that it has far fewer citizens than the census reported and that its population is already declining.

Past censuses indicate that China’s fertility rate began to fall below replacement level (generally around 2.1 children per woman) in 1991 — 11 years after the one-child policy was implemented nationwide. In 2000 and 2010, China’s fertility rate amounted to only 1.22 and 1.18 respectively, but the figures were adjusted to 1.8 and 1.63.

Those revisions were made on the basis of primary-school enrollment data. But such data are far from reliable. Local authorities often report more students than they have — 20% to 50% more, in many cases — in order to secure more education subsidies.

For example, according to a CCTV report, Jieshou city in Anhui province reported having 51,586 primary-school students in 2012, when the actual number was only 36,234; it duly extracted an additional 10.63 million in Chinese yuan ($1.63 million) in state funding.

So, from 2004 to 2009, China supposedly had 104 million first-graders. This was consistent with the 105 million births China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced in 1998-2003. Yet there were only 84 million people aged 7-12 registered in the (mandatory) hukou system in 2010, and only 86 million ninth-graders registered in 2012-17.

When the 2000 and 2010 censuses showed a much smaller population than expected, the authorities inflated the numbers. For example, in 2010, Fujian province was found to have a population of 33.29 million, yet the figure was revised to upwards of 36.89 million.

But these headline changes could not obscure the flaws in the breakdown figures. Judging by the number of people aged 0 to 9 in the 2000 census, one could infer that as many as 39 million fewer babies were born in 1991-2000 than had been recorded in the revised data. Accordingly, the actual population in 2000 may have been closer to 1.22 billion than to the 1.26 billion that was officially reported.

The 2020 census is similarly misleading. The National Bureau of Statistics claims that 227 million babies were born in the 2006-2019 period, and the census report shows that there were 241 million Chinese aged 1 to 14 in 2020. But that would mean that China’s average fertility rate in 2006-2019 amounted to 1.7 to 1.8. Given that the government was enforcing strict population-control policies during that period — the two-child policy was introduced on Jan. 1, 2016 — this seems highly unlikely.

Yes, China’s ethnic minorities were exempted from its one-child policy, so there was no need to hide their births. Yet their fertility rate was only 1.66 in 2000 and 1.47 in 2010. And given that Han Chinese tend to be wealthier and more educated, their fertility rate would be lower even if they were not subjected to stricter family-planning rules.

The truth is that China’s population in 2020 probably amounted to about 1.28 billion — some 130 million fewer people than reported. That makes India, not China, the world’s most populous country.

Of course, China’s latest census was always going to be in line with past releases. Officials from the National Bureau of Statistics and the former family-planning commission are still responsible for executing the census, and they will be held to account if the data are inconsistent. But, given the importance of demographics to China’s future prosperity, these distortions do the country a serious disservice.

To be sure, a declining fertility rate is an expected upshot of development, especially for improvements in health and education. Taiwan, for example, recorded a fertility rate of just 1.55 in 1991-2006 and 1.09 in 2006-2020. But Taiwan is about 15 years ahead of mainland China in terms of health and education, and mainland Chinese already show less willingness to have children than their counterparts in Taiwan.

Something else is going on in China and it is not hard to discern what it is. After facing a strict one-child policy for 36 years, and a two-child policy after that, Chinese people’s ideas about marriage and childbirth have changed profoundly. (The divorce rate in mainland China is 1.5 times that of Taiwan.)

Yet China’s top leaders have not fully grasped the demographic challenges they face. True, they are taking steps to boost the fertility rate. But they also seem convinced by the state economists’ predictions — based on (distorted) official data — that China’s GDP will keep growing until it dwarfs that of the United States. It is this belief in China’s inexorable rise that has spurred them to pursue strategic expansion.

The West, too, is buying into this narrative. In underestimating China’s demographic challenges, Western leaders are overestimating its economic and geopolitical prospects. They see a fire-breathing dragon when what stands before them is really a sick lizard. This raises the risk of strategic miscalculation on both sides.

By around 2035, China will be doing worse than the U.S. on all demographic metrics and in terms of economic growth. In fact, its GDP is unlikely to surpass that of the U.S. China’s leaders must recognize this — and take a strategic step back.

Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of “Big Country with an Empty Nest.”©Project Syndicate, 2021

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