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For the first time since 1960, deaths outnumbered births in China last year

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The sense of urgency in Beijing is palpable. The world's most populous country faces an uncertain economic future. And now, demographic trends show the country's population is officially shrinking. That will have dramatic economic and geopolitical impacts in a long term. Here's NPR's Emily Feng.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The last time China's population shrank was in 1960, and that was because of a man-made famine under the ruling Communist Party called the Great Leap Forward. Tens of millions of people starved to death. This time, China is shrinking again, not because significantly more people are dying but because birth rates are dropping.

NICHOLAS EBERSTADT: According to official numbers, China's birth totals have plummeted by over 40% since the year 2016.

E FENG: This is Nicholas Eberstadt, a senior researcher at the Washington-based think tank American Enterprise Institute.

EBERSTADT: That is a larger percentage drop than births during the famine after Mao's Great Leap Forward. We are seeing an absolutely seismic shock. That's something that usually only occurs in societies when there is a sudden convulsion from total war or an upheaval due to a terrible, terrible plague.

E FENG: A seismic shock because China's meteoric economic growth the last 40 years was hugely dependent on being a big, populous country with lots of young workers. That gave them a big domestic market to sell to and a pool of cheap labor that could build cities and make goods for export. But anyone who's followed demographics in China has known for at least a decade that someday China's total headcount would drop, just not this soon.

YI FU-XIAN: OK, to me it's a - it's no surprise.

E FENG: That's Dr. Yi Fu-Xian. He's a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And in the last few years, he's become kind of a demography whistleblower. He believes China's own data shows the population actually started shrinking in 2018 and that the state willfully inflated its numbers by more than 100 million people.

YI: At that time, the Chinese government was very angry with me.

E FENG: Angry at him because his predictions played into Beijing's fears that a decline in the working-age population would make it hard to sustain its ambition to overtake the U.S. China's latest GDP data, announced this week on the same day, shows economic growth continues to slow, even before the full effects of its looming demographic crunch have hit. At this point, you're probably wondering why China's birth rate has slowed so drastically.

WANG FENG: It's because of what's called a echo effect.

E FENG: Dr. Wang Feng is a sociology professor at the University of California Irvine. And he explains birth rates were already falling in the 1970s, well before China imposed a one-child policy cap in all families. And now, the people descended from those generations are also having fewer children; an echo from the past, though, for new reasons.

W FENG: There is the drastic postponement of marriage among young people. The - that change has accompanied this vast expansion in education - higher education - urbanization and changes in attitudes.

E FENG: The state has tried to incentivize having more children but only between married heterosexual couples. And so far, it's had no luck. Statistics announced this week showed birth totals dropped another 10% this past year alone. Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.