A woman from the Bai ethnic group carries a baby on her back as she buys goods at a local market on April 24, 2021 in Xizhou, Yunnan province, China – Kevin Frayer /Getty Images AsiaPac

China’s population growth has slipped to the lowest ever on record, forcing Communist Party leaders to contend with a demographic crisis hitting the world’s second-largest economy.

The country’s population increased 5.38 per cent to 1.41 billion people in 2020, according to once-a-decade census results published by the government on Tuesday.

Government data also showed that annual growth averaged 0.53 per cent over the past decade, the slowest rate since 1953.

Economists have long raised concerns over whether China can grow rich before it grows old – a struggle for many developing nations.

China’s brutal one-child policy – at times implemented with forced abortions – meant population growth had already been slowing for decades.

Concerned about a looming demographic issue, Chinese leaders relaxed restrictions in 2016 to allow families to have two children.

At the time, the government estimated that scrapping the one-child rule would see overall population grow to 1.42 billion by 2020.

But the rising cost of living, health care and education meant couples were less willing to have children, with the latest data falling short of the government’s target.

With waning births and a fast-aging society, China is headed for a population decline – a major turning point for a nation that is currently the world’s most populous.

Two girls drink milk from Sanlu brand bottles while waiting to be checked for kidney stones at a children’s hospital in Shenzhen, in south China’s Guangdong province – Color China Photo)/AP

A fall in population will also mean serious implications for the economy, especially as the working-age population has already begun to decline after hitting a peak a decade ago.

That section of the population – those aged 15 to 59 – represented 63.4 percent of the population, or 894.4 million people, down from nearly 940 million.

About 13.5 per cent of the population is now over the age of 65, compared to 8.9 percent in the last nationwide census in 2010.

Last month, the statistics bureau took the unusual step of saying that overall population grew in 2020 but didn’t announce figures – demonstrating the issue’s sensitivity.

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The move came after the Financial Times reported the census data might show a surprise decline after having been delayed from official release for weeks.

In yet another sign of how secretive and sensitive the figures were, the Telegraph understands that Chinese academics asked to write parts of the census report were told to leave blank spaces for the final data to be filled in later.

Estimates presented in Chinese state media put the country’s population decline on the horizon over the next few years.

Some experts, however, argue that the population is already shrinking and that policymakers – using faulty data – are unable to effectively respond to the demographic challenge.

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