China population: Shanghai’s populace falls again as migrant workers, births continue worrisome declines

China’s most densely packed urban metropolis lost a quarter million migrant workers last year amid its disruptive coronavirus-induced lockdowns, resulting in Shanghai’s total population falling for the third time since 2015, local authorities said on Tuesday.

The economic hub had around 24.76 million people last year, down by 135,400 compared with 2021, according to figures issued by the municipal bureau of statistics.

While the number of local residents slightly increased, the population decline was affected by the exodus of jobseekers from other regions, along with a low birth rate and an increasingly ageing population, the bureau said.

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People aged 65 and above accounted for 18.7 per cent of Shanghai’s total population, well above the national average of 14.9 per cent.

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The megacity, which went through a traumatic two-month citywide lockdown last spring, has been watching its number of migrant workers decline in recent years, since before the pandemic.

In 2015, Shanghai’s population decreased for the first time in four decades due to a loss of 150,000 migrant workers. Demographers and analysts mainly attributed this to structural changes in the city’s economy as its labour-intensive manufacturing sector shrank while other sectors such as hi-tech and services grew.

That population decline also came seven years before China’s overall population started falling last year, according to official figures. In the years between, the city saw moderate fluctuations, with the population ranging between 24.5 million and 24.9 million.

Last year, Shanghai lost more than 257,000 migrant workers.

Professor Peng Xizhe, director of the Centre for Population and Development Policy Studies at Fudan University, mainly attributed last year’s drop to the retreat of workers in service sectors such as tourism and restaurants amid China’s large-scale health control measures. And now he says they have mostly returned.

However, he warns that the overall trend will continue as younger jobseekers have more options elsewhere in China.

“Megacities are always attractive to young people, but they have more choices now,” Peng explained. “Emerging cities in the central and western regions are not bad, and living costs are lower.”

Shanghai authorities said the city’s low birth rate was the fundamental reason behind its population decline.

Comparing birth and death totals, Shanghai saw a natural decrease of 1.6 people for every 1,000 – much higher than the national average of 0.6 people lost per 1,000.

Shanghai people are living relatively longer than their average Chinese counterpart. The city’s life expectancy is about 83 years, or about as long as the most longevous nations such as Norway and Switzerland.

But Professor Zheng Bingwen, who focuses on population ageing and social security at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said elderly care services still lag far behind the pace of ageing, even in megacities, which have the most resources.

“As families become smaller and more old people are living away from their children, public facilities and services, such as hospitals and catering, for these people need to be improved,” he urged.

And despite having relaxed population controls in 2021 to allow people to have three children, while introducing incentives such as extended parental leave, most people who choose to have children opt for only one.

Around 60 per cent of people living in Shanghai wanted just one kid or none, the bureau said.

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