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The year of the dragon has historically augured a spike in births in China and other countries in east Asia as potential parents try to time the births of their offspring with an auspicious zodiac sign. 

But experts said this demographic idiosyncrasy was unlikely to come to Beijing’s aid in this dragon year — which begins next month — after a gloomy economic outlook, ageing society and the coronavirus pandemic pushed China’s population to a second annual decline in 2023.

On Wednesday, official data showed that deaths in China exceeded births by 2mn last year. The country registered 11mn deaths against 9mn births, down from 9.6mn in 2022, resulting in a population of 1.4bn.

“The population decline is not just increasing. The decline has more than doubled from the previous year,” said Wang Feng, an expert on Chinese demographics at the University of California, Irvine. In 2022, China’s fell by 850,000, marking its first decline since a man-made famine 60 years ago.

The national death rate is also accelerating, reaching 7.87 per 1,000 people in 2023, the highest level since the early 1970s. The death toll was believed to have been worsened by the sudden relaxation of strict anti-pandemic controls in late 2022, but authorities have not published comprehensive Covid-19 fatality data.

China’s population decline, fuelled by a falling birth rate and ageing population, represents a particularly thorny challenge as Beijing contends with a property downturn entering its third year, anaemic exports and low investor confidence. Last year, India officially overtook China as the world’s most populous nation.

Economists have warned that this year will be critical for China to revive the growth factors that propelled its explosive four-decade expansion and escape the threat of a debt-deflation spiral.

In past years, a dragon lunar new year holiday might have held some promise of relief. In China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, so-called dragon babies have traditionally been believed to have been imbued with the luck, translating into a jump in births every 12 years. The effect has been particularly pronounced in Taiwan and Singapore.

But Wang said that superstition was less commonly held among China’s contemporary child-bearing population, which was already shrinking because of the long-term effects of the one-child policy that held the birth rate far below the average of 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population for decades.

“In the past there have been higher births in auspicious zodiac years,” said Wang. “But given the pessimistic economic outlook and pessimism among young people, I doubt we will see a noticeable rebound this year.” 

This is bad news for Beijing’s population planners, who are desperate to reverse the rapidly declining birth rate as the country faces the prospect of a prolonged economic slowdown and long-term labour shortages.

Experts said there was a mutually reinforcing cycle between the economic malaise and low birth rate. China’s consumer price index remained in deflationary territory for the third consecutive month in December, according to data released last week, reflecting consumers’ wariness about the prospects of an economic recovery.

“Having a child is a life-long responsibility. Economic pessimism is a strong counterforce for improving the birth rate this year,” said Wang.

But policymakers have limited tools to encourage women to give birth, experts warned. Authorities loosened the one-child policy in 2016, but the number of births has fallen every year since, and incentive schemes for new parents have largely failed to boost the birth rate.

“Chinese women’s desire to have children is low. There is no sign that this will change, even as concerns about the demographic crisis increase and even if policymakers try to incentivise increased births through subsidies,” said Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist writer in New York. 

China’s State Council, the cabinet, indicated a different tack this week, calling for investment in a “silver economy” to meet the needs of a growing elderly cohort, including in pensions, healthcare and leisure services.

Dora Gao, a 30-year-old married finance worker in Shanghai, said she did not feel confident enough in her financial situation to raise a child. “I don’t have enough resources to devote to a child’s education. The competition is fierce and there are high costs that come with that,” she said. 

She added that the “professional penalty” on mothers was dissuading her and others from getting pregnant. “Professional mothers in China have work taken away from them and given to colleagues,” she said. “They are less likely to be promoted.”

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