Updated at 9 a.m. ET
New birthrate figures show that China has so far failed to reverse the effects of its longtime one-child policy — a change that policymakers say is necessary to forestall the long-term economic consequences of an aging and shrinking population.
The National Bureau of Statistics of China released the new data on Friday, the same day it announced that the country’s GDP growth has fallen to its lowest level in nearly 30 years.
Last year, there were 10.48 births per 1,000 people, the lowest birthrate since 1949, the year the People’s Republic of China was founded. The number was down from 10.94 the year before.
The one-child policy was put in place in 1979 by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who feared that the country’s exploding population would hold back economic development.
However, by 2016, China’s leadership came to realize that the policy had been too successful and officially relaxed it.
Experts say that improved education and higher incomes in China have led to delayed marriage and childbirth and that once-strict government restrictions on births have made one-child households the norm.
“China should have stopped the policy 28 years ago. Now it’s too late,” Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a longtime critic of the country’s family-planning policies, told The Guardian last year.
By 2050, a third of China’s people will be 60 or older, according to current projections, placing a significant burden on the government to care for the elderly.
Tariffs pinch economic growth
Meanwhile, the world’s second-largest economy cooled to its slowest pace in nearly three decades, with China posting year-on-year growth of 6.1% last year — a further sign that the protracted trade war with the U.S. has taken a toll.
The pace of growth in gross domestic product for 2019 was down from 6.6% the previous year and marked the smallest annual increase since 1990.
Beijing’s policymakers had projected growth of between 6% and 6.5% for the year.
China’s GDP, worth an estimated $14.4 trillion, is second in size only to that of the U.S. Its economy has been undergoing a painful shift away from heavy industry and commodities. Instead, Beijing has aimed for a more consumer-based economy.
The latest GDP figures, while exceptionally strong by the standards of many other countries, are a long way from the heady days of 10% or more growth barely a decade ago.
In 2007, the Chinese economy grew by a blistering 14%.
In recent years, China’s leaders have struggled to balance competing demands of maintaining high rates of growth while simultaneously minimizing the consequences of years of debt-fueled stimulus spending. Last year, authorities took steps to limit wasteful infrastructure investments in an effort to rein in unsustainable levels of local government and corporate debt.
Friday’s data come days after a “Phase 1” trade deal between the U.S. and China, seen as a step toward ending an 18-month-old trade dispute, which has seen damaging tariffs imposed by both sides.
The new trade deal eases U.S. tariffs on some popular consumer goods manufactured in China, such as cellphones, but leaves in place hundreds of billions of dollars of other tariffs, including on components that U.S. factories use to assemble finished products.
NPR’s Emily Feng in Beijing contributed to this report.