yi4_Ren YongSOPA ImagesLightRocket via Getty Images_china population Ren Yong/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Leaked Data Show China’s Population Is Shrinking Fast

Because China has always massaged its demographic figures and cracked down on anyone who challenges the official line, there are endless debates about the true size and growth trajectory of the country's population. But a recent, large-scale data breach offers some sorely needed clarity.

MADISON, WISCONSIN – Even though everyone knows that China’s official demographic figures are systematically overestimated, the authorities have consistently cracked down on anyone who questions the data. For example, my book Big Country with an Empty Nest was quickly banned when it appeared in 2007, because it voiced concerns about China’s one-child policy and predicted that the Chinese population would begin to shrink in 2017, not in 2033-34, as Chinese officials and the United Nations’ 2006 World Population Prospects (WPP) had projected.

Then, in 2019, I concluded that China’s population had already been overtaken by India in 2014 and begun to decline in 2018 (one year later than my initial estimate due to the two-child policy). In response, the head of the Chinese statistics bureau went on China Central Television to accuse me of creating rumors, and People’s DailyOnlineranked my conclusion third in its “Top Ten Rumors of 2019 in China.”

Now, the UN has released its 2022 WPP, which concludes that China’s population began to decline this year (ten years earlier than its 2019 projection), and that India’s population will surpass China’s in 2023 (seven years ahead of the 2019 forecast). And yet, as in previous revisions, the WPP is still overestimating China’s population figures. The 2022 WPP, the Chinese statistics bureau, and China’s 2020 census all overstate the country’s post-1990 births. While the 2020 census and the 2022 WPP show a birth peak starting in 2004, the statistics bureau puts the peak in 2011, and all three data sets have roughly the same number of post-2010 births.