05/17/2023, 12.47
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The demographic winter of China's megacities

by John Ai

The influx of economic migrants into China's four largest metropolitan areas has stopped. The population decline represents an epochal turning point for the country. The birth rate is also plummeting. The 'first-tier' cities are becoming less and less attractive due to high costs and fewer job opportunities.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - The population numbers of China's four most important megacities - namely Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen - show a significant decrease in 2022, official statistics reveal.

Shanghai's population decreased by 135,400, Guangzhou's by 76,500, the capital Beijing by 43,000 and Shenzhen by about 19,800. What is particularly striking is the collapse in the numbers of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, two vibrant economic centres in bustling southern China, which represents an epochal turning point, not least by virtue of the fact that both had recorded the highest rate of increase in the last decade. 

The population of Shenzhen, not far from Hong Kong, declined for the first time since its founding in 1979. In a negative picture of demographic decline affecting the whole of China, for the megacities it is even more important to consider the economic aspect, an engine capable until now of attracting large numbers of migrant workers and young graduates. Today, growth is stagnating and the effects can also be seen in terms of inhabitants.

According to analysts and experts reported in the Chinese media, the pandemic in Shenzhen last year caused large pockets of unemployment and forced migrant workers to return to their cities in order to reduce living costs.

Even in Dongguan, a manufacturing centre with a population of over 10 million connected to Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the number of residents fell by 100,000 in 2022. The city, which is home to numerous factories and offered many attractive job opportunities in the past, has now become lacklustre and attractive.

Meanwhile, the population in some large cities and 'second-tier' provincial capitals is continuing to grow, but at a rate that tends towards flattening. The figure in centres such as Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Suzhou is all increasing, but at a much lower rate.

It is estimated that the high costs of living and housing in the 'first-tier cities', i.e. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, push migrant workers to move to the 'second-tier' ones that are closer to the centres and villages of origin.

The United Nations certified that India's population surpassed China's in April. Beijing put an end to family planning policies and have now reversed course by encouraging pregnancy. Nevertheless, the birth rate and the number of marriages are still low. The birth rate in both Beijing and Shanghai is lower than the death rate.

After China ended its one-child policy in 2015, there was a rebound in new births for a short period, but thereafter the figure and rapidly declined. And in 2022, China's population turned negative, declining by 850,000 for the first time since the Great Famine in the early 1960s.

Due to the pressure of the declining population, local governments are making efforts to attract young graduates with housing subsidies and employment incentives to companies and individuals. Many cities have lowered the registration threshold for families and simplified the process to allow young people to settle more easily.

In addition, administrations are encouraging young people to buy property, trying - in this way - to revitalise the housing market sector, which is also marking time. After all, the outbreak of a series of debt crises in the real estate sector and the long-standing issue of unfinished buildings since last summer has been a source of protests and demonstrations throughout the country.

In the past, the household registration system ['hukou' in Chinese] was the main obstacle to free movement for Chinese people. Currently, in Beijing and Shanghai, such restrictions are still in place and the two cities are still imposing some strict measures aimed at population control.

As far as the capital is concerned, the number of inhabitants started to decrease already in 2017 and the local authorities have made every effort to relocate labour-intensive industries to other cities. After several people died in a fire at a complex in the suburbs, the administration decided to forcibly evict migrant workers and tenants. So much so that thousands were left homeless in the middle of winter.

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