China's family-planning policy has been effective in curbing its population growth, but problems such as an aging population and gender ratio imbalance are reaching an alarming stage, threatening the development of the world's No. 2 economy.
According to census data released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) Thursday, the country's population reached 1.37 billion in 2010, including 1.3397 billion on the mainland.
The figure marked a 73.9 million increase over ten years ago, but the annual average population growth over the past decade dropped to 0.57 percent from 1.07 percent between 1990 and 2000.
"The rate indicated the rapid growth of our population has been controlled effectively thanks to the family-planning policy that started in 1980," Ma Jiantang, director of the NBS, said at a press conference, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
However, he placed greater emphasis on three major challenges that were shown from the census data – the upward aging population trend, an expanding floating population and the skewed gender ratio among newborns.
According to the NBS, Chinese people above the age of 60 account for 13.26 percent of the population, 2.93 percentage points higher than the figure collected ten years ago. Meanwhile, the number of people aged under 14 slipped to 16.60 percent, down by 6.29 percentage points.
"The emerging problem of aging is affecting the nation, especially places along the eastern coast. Recent cases of labor shortages in some coastal areas are the result of this problem," Ma said.
A survey by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security a year ago showed that 70 percent of the 3,239 companies polled nationwide said they had difficulty recruiting employees, up by 5 percentage points over 2009.
"The shortage will likely continue, and without a sufficient workforce, economic growth will slow down, and eventually the total production output will be curtailed," said Wu Yaowu, a senior researcher specializing in population economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The current family-planning policy will worsen the aging problem, and the government needs to come up with adjustment measures, Wu told the Global Times.
According to Time magazine, the average number of children a Chinese woman will have in her lifetime – the fertility rate – is currently around 1.6, well below the replacement level of 2.1 that is needed to hold a population steady.
"What really matters is that the family-planning policy has created a cliff drop (in the population) in the last three decades," Dong Tao, an economist at Credit Suisse in Hong Kong, told Reuters. "That is starting to show in rural labor markets, and the entire economy feels the pain as this becomes a major source of inflation."
However, some analysts noted that maintaining the one-child policy is also important for China's development.
Ma Li, deputy head of the China Population and Development Research Institute, told the Global Times that the policy could help the country deal with a shortage in resources and environmental pollution.
"To find a way out, China can adopt a moderate low-fertility policy so as to prevent either side going to the extreme," she said.
It is estimated that without family planning, China's population would have surged to 400 million more than the current number, according to the National Population and Family Planning Commission.
Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India, told the Global Times that although China should continue its family planning policy, it needs to adopt a less restrictive approach to curb its side effects, such as abortions of female fetuses as a result of a preference for boys.
The NBS data showed that although the total gender ratio (female=100) in China declined to 105.20 from 106.74, the number is 118.06 for newborns, 1.2 higher than in the year 2000.
"The ratio of 118.06 is still beyond the normal range, and we must pay great attention to this problem and take more effective measures to promote gender balance," director Ma Jiantang said.
Another issue that drew attention was the floating population.
According to the census, 19.5 percent of the total population, or 261.4 million, are counted as migrants who have left their household registration region for more than six months.
The shift of the population to urban areas has put great pressure on cities such as Beijing and Chongqing, and will likely spur continued high levels of infrastructure spending in coming years, Reuters reported.