What matters to China is consumer and investor confidence, “so it is not hard to see why Chinese officials are pushing back on the argument that a population decline spells economic decline,” said Dimitar Gueorguiev, an associate professor who teaches Chinese politics at Syracuse University.
To China, being the most populous nation “doesn’t count for anything” in and of itself, Gueorguiev told NBC News in an email. What’s important is “to be seen as a developing, modern, and functional country.”
On the streets of Beijing the mood was similar.
“Population does not equal national power,” said Zhang Han, 29, a business student from the eastern province of Shandong. “The U.S. and Japan have smaller populations, but it doesn’t mean they’re not strong powers.”
Retired teacher Liu Quan, 57, said he doesn’t care about the population news at all. “We just want peace” between the quarreling neighbors, he said. “I believe both India and China don’t want conflict.”
Despite the vying population statistics, China is far more wealthy than India. After pursuing economic liberalization in the 1970s, its economy has mushroomed to become the second largest in the world behind the U.S., with a GDP almost seven times that of fifth-placed India.
Both countries face their own challenges.
Once growing exponentially, China’s aging population fell last year for the first time in six decades. This raises serious questions about the ability of this titan — one on which the global economy has come to rely — to maintain let alone enhance its economic status.
China once tried to check its population growth with the now defunct one-child policy. Now it’s desperately trying to arrest a falling birthrate that means that — as in many Western countries — a shrinking young population will struggle to support a growing number of retirees. That’s what partly stagnated the economy of neighboring Japan, despite it already being a high-income country.
India, by contrast, has not achieved the same lightspeed development in manufacturing and infrastructure. Its population is younger but more of them are unemployed or in extreme poverty. Only 2.2% of workers between the ages of 15 and 59 have received formal vocational training, according to government figures. In China, 26% of the workforce are classed as “skilled.”
Despite a booming technology sector, the sheer size of the country’s population means it has been struggling to create enough jobs to keep up with demand.
The Times of India newspaper described this as “a ticking social bomb” in a leader column reacting to the population news. “Only by facilitating much, much better education and opportunities for our young can we realize the hope of an ‘Indian century,'” it said.
A survey conducted by the U.N. in conjunction with this week’s report found that many Indians listed economic issues as their top concern when thinking about population change, followed by worries about the environment, health and human rights.
Those findings suggest that “population anxieties have seeped into large portions of the general public,” even though the numbers should be seen as a sign of development rather than a cause for anxiety, Andrea Wojnar, the United Nations Population Fund’s representative for India, said in a statement.
If China’s concerned about giving up top spot, India doesn’t seem entirely thrilled about claiming it.
Jace Zhang reported from Beijing, and Alex Smith reported from London.
Eric Baculinao, Associated Press and Reuters contributed.