Experts question China’s population figures, which may actually be only 1.28 billion

Chinese Communist Party officials may be underestimating the rate at which its population is declining, and the recently introduced three-child policy has done little to boost the birth rate, Yi Fuxian, an expert on Chinese population issues, said Friday.

Speaking at an event hosted by Reuters, Yi, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he estimates China’s population in 2020 will be 1.28 billion, not 1.41 billion as official census figures say. China’s actual fertility rate is also lower than the official count, he said.

He estimated that China’s population has been declining since 2018.

China’s rapidly declining birth rate has raised concerns about slowing economic growth, as well as challenges from a declining employed population and an aging population.

In 2016, Beijing sought to avoid these risks by scrapping its decades-old one-child policy and replacing it with a “two-child” policy. The government announced a three-child policy in May of this year, following the high cost of raising children in China’s cities and a steady decline in birth rates.

Lenora Chu, a Chinese-American author and journalist, said the cost of education in China and the psychological pressure of college entrance exams are big challenges. That’s part of the reason why these family planning policies have to be combined with education reform policies,” she said at the Reuters Next conference. Otherwise, parents won’t want more children.”

Benjamin Chu is the author of Little Soldiers: an American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve, a 2017 book about China’s education system.

Recent official figures suggest that China’s fertility rate in 2020 is 1.3 children per woman on average, on par with aging societies such as Japan and Italy, and well below the standard population replacement rate of 2.1.

Yi estimated that China’s overall actual fertility rate is much lower based on years of declining fertility among China’s ethnic minorities (who are not subject to the one-child policy), and he based his population calculations on his own estimate of a lower fertility rate.

He said local governments inflate population numbers to get more subsidies, including education funding from the central government. More than 20 social benefits are linked to birth registration, and some families use the black market to buy extra birth certificates online, he said.

Yi Fu-hsien said the inflated population figures are mainly for economic gain.

The Chinese government did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.