China to Reach Peak Population in 2022

Written by Marian Starkey, Vice President for Communications | Published: March 23, 2022

The year of the water tiger is looking like it could be the one to see China’s population peak. Projections by various agencies and organizations differ somewhat, but they all agree that the end of China’s reign as the world’s most populous country is near. Within the next few years, India will overtake China, and UN demographers don’t expect the Indian population to peak until 2059, at 1.65 billion people.

The Chinese government’s 2021 population estimate was 1.41 billion, with births the lowest they’ve been since at least 1950. The rate of population growth was the lowest it had been since 1960. Several provinces are already reporting negative population growth.

Some Chinese economists are bemoaning the reduced consumption that will be a byproduct (I say benefit) of population stabilization and then decline.

How utterly backwards.

We should be celebrating the decrease in consumer demand that population stabilization will bring, especially given the urgency of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to stave off the worst-case climate change scenarios. China, apparently, uses more concrete—a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions—in two years than the United States poured over the past century. With zero population growth, less concrete will be needed to build more housing and commercial space, not to mention the heating, cooling, water, and sanitation services all of those buildings would have needed, or the cars and other modes of transit that would have been required to get people from home to work and back again.

But instead of extoling the virtues of peak population, even liberal media outlets are falling prey to “demographic crisis” talk and concerns about “a huge political problem for Beijing.” The authors of such articles admit that the reason for the ultralow fertility are based in personal choice and rights (something China’s not historically known for): Women simply don’t want to have the number of children it would take (2.1) for the country’s fertility rate to rise to replacement level.

The Chinese government’s one-child policy, enacted in 1979, was relaxed in 2016, when couples gained the right to have up to two children. Last year, the government further relaxed the policy to allow couples to have up to three children. But would-be parents aren’t moved.

Raising children in China, especially in urban areas, has become prohibitively expensive and competitive, and women are more interested than ever in pursuing lives outside of motherhood—careers, friendships, hobbies, etc. It’s the same story that’s been playing out in high-income countries for decades: When women have opportunities in education and employment and aren’t under the strict direction of their spouses and communities to bear children, they’re less likely to want to do so.

But that doesn’t stop many economists and politicians from warning, “The workers of tomorrow are nowhere to be found.” Is that all citizens are to them? Are they really so rigid in their adherence to the economic structures of the past several decades to prevent them from thinking creatively about how to maintain a healthy economy without population growth? Without continuing to pillage our planet via greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural expansion, mining, plastic waste, air and water pollution, etc., which are all exacerbated by soaring populations?

China’s total and per capita emissions are rising. Climate change is threatening food supplies for China’s existing population. And most importantly, women in China don’t want to have more kids. For all of these reasons, it’s time for leaders to stop agonizing over China reaching peak population and embrace the myriad benefits of this necessary and inevitable development.