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On November 15, the United Nations (UN) estimated the world’s population to have surpassed eight billion. This week, new demographic statistics from China show the country’s reported population decline throughout 2022 has resulted in India now officially taking the top spot as the world’s most populous nation.
A country’s development and demographics tend to follow a familiar pattern. As a nation gets richer, improvements in healthcare see mortality rates fall and population growth accelerate.
Eventually, as women are empowered to enter education and the workforce, and as the cost of raising children rises, fertility rates – the total number of births in a year per 1,000 women of reproductive age – decline, and population growth slows.
Despite the world recently crossing the eight billion threshold, the rate at which the global population is going up is easing off – the UN putting the figure below one percent in 2020 for the first time in 70 years.
On Tuesday, China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported the country’s population had gone down by 850,000 over the past year – the first decline since 1951, according to Our World in Data. As a result, India is now likely the most populous nation on the planet.
The news was widely expected, but not quite this soon. Most experts agreed India would overtake its northern neighbour at some point this year or the next. The UN had even guessed April 14 specifically.
However, now that China’s statistical agency has estimated the country’s population to have been 1.412 billion at the end of last year – when World Population Review calculated India’s to be 1.417 billion – the switch at the top may already have happened.
China’s massive population has been crucial to its unprecedented transformation into a global economic powerhouse over the past few decades. Although Chinese GDP is today almost six times larger, India is set to catch up fast.
According to the OECD, 67.5 percent of the Indian population was between the ages of 15 and 64 in 2021. The comparable figure for China is more than five points lower at 62 percent.
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To maintain a stable population, a country needs a fertility rate of 2.1 – just enough children to replace their parents. The rate in both countries has plummeted over the past half-century, but while India’s sits at a sustainable 2.139 in 2023 according to Macrotrends, China’s comes in at 1.705.
The UN believes that by 2050, India will have 1.6 billion people while China will have already trickled back towards 1.3 billion.
India is set to remain the most populous country in the world for the rest of the century and is expected to reach a “peak population” of 1.7 billion in the 2060s, according to Our World in Data.
Currently the sixth-largest economy in the world, experts believe India’s thriving technology and services sector puts it on track to replace Japan as the world’s third-biggest economy by 2027.
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China had been the world’s most populous country for hundreds of years. In 1750 it was home to 225 million people – over a quarter of the world’s population at the time, according to Our World in Data.
Yi Fuxian, demographer and expert on Chinese population trends at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told Associated Press: “China’s population has begun to decline nine to 10 years earlier than Chinese officials predicted and the United Nations projected.”
“China now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, comparable only to Taiwan and South Korea,” he added.
This can partly be attributed to the Chinese government’s infamous one-child policy – initiated in the late Seventies and early Eighties and ending only in 2016 – aimed at reigning in the country’s soaring birth rate at the time.
As a result of this and a historic preference for male offspring to carry down the family name, men now outnumber women in China by 722.06 million to 689.69 million, leading many to warn of an impending demographic disaster.
Since ditching the one-child policy, China has gone completely the other way and encouraged families to have at least two children, to no avail. As is the case across East Asia and the wider world, the fertility rate continues to fall.
In 1952, a typical family had five children, according to the World Economic Forum. Today they have just over two.
Combined with the fact that life expectancies are going up – increasing worldwide by more than 20 years since 1960 – the global population is ageing, heaping pressure on healthcare systems around the world.
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