China is expected to reach a "turning point" between 2026 and 2030 with its population plateauing or even shrinking as fewer babies mean a slow down and then a reversal in the momentum of growth, a state think tank said on Wednesday.
The world's most populous country saw 5.38% more people in the last decade, to 1.41 billion, according to the results of a nationwide census released on Tuesday.
That is the slowest rate of population growth since the 1950s.
Fertility has declined because of a decades-long one-child policy, rising living costs and changing social mores.
Negative population growth is expected to emerge due to a fall in the number of young and working-age people, bringing with it problems for an economy that has long relied on so-called demographic dividends to underpin growth.
China missed a goal to increase its population to about 1.42 billion by 2020, by a small margin. Its fertility rate has slipped to 1.3 children per woman, missing a target of about 1.8.
In 2020, just 12 million babies were born, the lowest since 1961.
"The era of zero or even negative population growth is gradually approaching," said Zhai Zhenwu, a professor at the China Population and Development Research Center.
The government's economic and development blueprint for 2021 to 2025, its so-called 14th five-year plan, is expected to be the last planning period to see population growth this century, Zhai wrote in a commentary in state-backed Economic Daily.
"During the 15th five-year plan period, we will usher in the 'turning point' of China's population," he said.
Entering the era of zero or even negative population growth is a "major change unseen in a century" for China, hitting its supply of high-quality labour and consumer demand, Zhai said.
The population is likely to peak before 2025 as fertility falls, said Ernan Cui, analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing.
The proportion of elderly people will also keep growing.
"An older population will increase the fiscal burden of old-age pensions and health care provision, and also push down the household savings rate - both factors that will constrain the government's ability to continue the investment-driven growth model of recent decades," Cui said.
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