Beijing’s population falls for first time since 2003 as China battles low birthrate

Beijing’s population has declined for the first time in almost two decades, new population figures have revealed.

In 2022 there were more deaths than births in the Chinese capital, home to more than 21 million people, resulting in a natural population growth of minus 0.05 per 1,000 people. It is the first time the population has gone backwards since 2003.

The report by Beijing authorities said the city’s death rate rose to 5.72 deaths per 1,000 people, while the birthrate fell to 5.67 births per 1,000 people. Demographers said the move into negative territory was in line with national trends, demonstrating the economic and social factors underpinning China’s falling birthrate.

“Given the high living and education cost and education levels in Beijing, it is very normal that the birthrate of permanent residents is low,” said Xiujian Peng, senior research fellow at the Centre of Policy Studies at Victoria University in Australia.

China’s Communist party government is striving to reverse the trend and stave off the economic impacts of an ageing population.

Last year official data showed China’s birthrate had fallen to 6.77 births per 1,000 people, the lowest on record. The population figures for Beijing are based on the permanent residents of the city, and don’t include the large numbers of migrant workers who travel from their home provinces searching for economic opportunity.

For decades, China’s one-child policy was brutally enforced, and was lifted only in 2016. Authorities are now encouraging couples to have more than one child but people are choosing not to, citing factors including the rising cost of living, pressures of traditional gender roles and demanding work cultures. Legislative changes and social reforms – including increased access to maternal healthcare and IVF, reduction in red tape on birth registrations, financial incentives and discouragement of abortions – has done little to reverse the trend.

“It is too difficult to marry and have children to live a stable life,” said one 42-year-old Beijing resident who came to the city from a rural family.

“I was admitted to a university in Beijing and stayed for work … In the past few years, the economic environment has not been good, I am getting older. I was laid off a few times. I was unemployed for three months this year before I found a job, and my salary was only half of what it used to be. It is impossible to buy a house in Beijing.”

It wasn’t clear what impact China’s wave of Covid cases and deaths – which were underreported – had on the figures published on Wednesday. The data was based on a sample survey that began on 1 November, according to a footnote in the release, prior to the bulk of China’s Covid cases occurring. The report did not specify how long the survey took.

Reuters and Chi Hui Lin contributed to this report.