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Article25 May 2021

China: Demographic Crisis or Age of Opportunity?

When the world’s most populous country conducts a census, the results are keenly awaited around the globe. As we highlight in this summary, economist Xiangrong Yu believes the census shows China to be at an inflection point in what he terms a great demographic transition. Challenges and opportunities abound.

China’s census, carried out once a decade by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), provides an invaluable--and rare--snapshot of the country’s demographics, highlighting both the economic and social progress made and the challenges ahead. Here are the top lines from the census:

Population growth at a six-decade low in 2020: China’s population stood at 1.41 billion in 2020, up 5.38% from 2010. But the average annual growth rate in the past decade was the lowest since the Great Famine (1959-1961). While China remains the world’s most populous country, a prolonged slowdown in population growth means it now accounts for 18% of the world’s population down from 22.7% in 1975.

Low fertility rate: The NBS estimated around 12 million births in 2020, 33% lower than the recent peak in 2016, when all couples were allowed to have two children. The census also showed the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime stood at about 1.3 in 2020, well below the world average of 2.47.

Figure 1. New births dropped to around 12mn in 2020, a 60-year low

Figure 2. Population aged 65+ accelerated to 13.5% of total in 2020

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Source: NBS, Citi Research

Source: NBS, UN, Citi Research


Ageing accelerates: China’s population aged 65 or over reached 190.64 million people in 2020, more than the entire populations of Russia and Bangladesh. At 13.5% of the total population, that’s 4.65 ppt higher than in 2010 and well above the UN convention of 7% to define an ageing population.

Regional imbalances: Coastal provinces of Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shandong as well as Henan showed the largest population rises in the past decade. Meanwhile Heilongjiang, Jilin, Lianoning, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia and Gansu posted sizeable declines. China’s population further convened in the more economically developed east and in cities.

Urbanization continues apace: There were 901.99 million people living in urban areas in 2020, accounting for almost 64% of the total population. This urbanization ratio was 14.21 ppt higher than in 2010 and strongly beat the 13th Five-Year Plan target of 60% by 2020. As a result of increased population mobility and improved housing conditions, the census found households continued to downsize to 2.62 persons in 2020.

Education advances: The census found 218.36 million people with a university education. Broken down, that’s 15.467 persons per 100, a massive increase from 8.93 in 2010. The illiteracy rate dropped from 4.08% to 2.67%.

Overall sex composition shifts: The ratio of males to females stood at 105.07 in 2020, showing a slight decline from 2010’s census. Following the gradual banning in the 2000s of gender-selective tests and abortions, the census reported an improvement in gender balance at birth.

Challenges vs. Opportunities

China’s demographic shift is often presented as a crisis. Almost certainly, the country’s economic growth, savings rates and external surpluses will taper relative to past decades, while reforming the retirement system will challenge policy-makers. On the plus side, the next phase of China’s economic development will be characterized by a better educated and more skilled workforce, greater innovation and more pervasive robotic automation. In terms of demand, an emerging ‘silver economy’ will be a key factor in an increasingly consumption-driven economy.

For more information on this subject, please see China Economics: A Reality Check on China’s Great Demographic Transition


Citi Global Insights (CGI) is Citi’s premier non-independent thought leadership curation. It is not investment research; however, it may contain thematic content previously expressed in an Independent Research report. For the full CGI disclosure, click here.


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