China seeks to douse speculation of shrinking population

Women play with children at a park in Jinhua, Zhejiang province
Women play with children at a park in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, China November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

BEIJING, April 29 (Reuters) - China's population grew last year, the statistics bureau said on Thursday in an apparent bid to quash reports that it had fallen, but authorities stopped short of saying from which year numbers had grown.

On Tuesday, the Financial Times newspaper said China was set to report that its population fell below 1.4 billion last year from 2019, in the first decrease in five decades, citing people familiar with the matter. read more

The National Bureau of Statistics has delayed publishing the results of last year's once-in-a-decade census, with no explanation apart from saying more preparatory work was needed. It had been due to announce the results in early April.

"According to our understanding, in 2020, our country's population continued to grow," the bureau said in a one-sentence statement, adding that detailed figures would be disclosed when the census results were published.

Births in China have continued to fall despite a two-child policy that replaced a decades-old one-child limit scrapped in 2016 in hopes of boosting the number of babies.

Last year, births plunged 15% to 10.035 million from 2019, the Ministry of Public Security has said.

The 2010 census showed the mainland population was 1.34 billion. By 2019, this had increased to 1.4005 billion, the statistics bureau said in February last year.

On Thursday, the bureau did not say if the 2020 growth was being measured from 2019 or from 2010, which means the population could have still risen from the last decade but fallen from a year earlier.

"The census is very accurate, but the reason for the delay in publishing it may be that some of the speculation is correct," said Liu Kaiming, a labour expert in the southern city of Shenzhen.

"The number of newborns released by the Ministry of Public Security is close to falling below 10 million. Therefore, the population of 2020 may be less than 1.4 billion."

The population number is very sensitive and will not be released until government departments have reached a consensus on the data and its implications, the Financial Times said.

An unexpected drop in population would pile pressure on Beijing to quickly come up with measures to encourage people to have more children and avoid an irreversible decline.

In recent months, state media have said the population might start to shrink in the next few years. In 2016, Beijing set a target to increase the population to about 1.42 billion by 2020.

The last time the Chinese population fell was in 1959 to 1961, during Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward campaign.

During the period, the population shrank 13.48 million, data from the statistics bureau shows, amid a famine caused by the disastrous economic policy.

Posts on China's Twitter-like microblog Weibo with the hashtag on the statistics bureau's announcement garnered more than 56 million views, with many expressing disbelief.

"Really? I don't believe it," one netizen said.

Another made fun of the statistics bureau's delay: "Don't rush (them), be more considerate - It takes time to make things up."

Reporting by Ryan Woo; Editing by Himani Sarkar

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