For the first time in over six decades, China reported a population decline. The news has raised the possibility that India, which was expected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country later this year, has already done so.
The National Bureau of Statistics of China announced Tuesday that the number of recorded deaths, 10.41 million, outweighed the number of births, 9.56 million, resulting in the population declining in 2022 by 850,000 to reach 1.41175 billion. The last time China reported a decline was when the Great Leap Forward—a failed economic plan led by Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party—brought about famine that led to millions of deaths.
According to Reuters, U.N. experts had predicted last year that India’s population would reach 1.412 billion. But there is uncertainty around how India carries out population data collection methods, which take place every decade, and the 2021 census was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and prominent critic of China’s birth policy, describes China’s population decline as “much bleaker than expected.”
“China’s population began to decline 9-10 years earlier than Chinese officials and U.N. projections, meaning that China’s real demographic crisis is beyond imagination and that all of China’s past economic, social, defense, and foreign policies were based on faulty demographic data,” he writes in a statement to TIME.
Fuxian says that China’s declining population has been brought about by surging living and welfare costs that discourages further growth and fewer babies as a result of the “later, longer, fewer” campaign and a decades-long one-child policy.
China ended its one-child policy in 2016 and removed all restrictions on family size in 2021 in a bid to promote population growth. The government has also rolled out incentives to encourage reproduction, such as tax deductions, longer maternity leave entitlement, and housing aid, with President Xi Jinping suggesting in October that further beneficial policies would soon follow.
But these measures have so far been unsuccessful. China’s birth rate fell from 7.52 births per 1,000 people in 2021 to 6.77 births, and China has among the lowest in the world. Professor Steve Tsang, Director of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies’ (SOAS) China Institute tells TIME, “the few incentives the Chinese state puts in place are unlikely to be sufficient to change the attitude of people. The demographic shift in China looks structural and it will take a lot more than some government incentives to reverse.”
Like China, India also previously explored unsuccessful attempts to curb its population growth. But unlike China, India’s population is only expected to grow further, reaching 1.52 billion by 2036, according to a July 2020 projection by the country’s National Commission on Population.