by Neil Connor, Agence France-Presse | 01/18/2013 11:40 PM
BEIJING - China's working-age population declined for the first time in recent decades in 2012, the government said Friday, detailing the extent of a demographic time bomb experts say is one of Beijing's biggest challenges.
China introduced its controversial one-child policy in the late 1970s to control population growth, but its people are now ageing, moving to the cities, and increasingly male, government statistics showed.
The world's biggest national population rose by 6.7 million in 2012 to 1.354 billion people, excluding Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, the National Bureau of Statistics said.
Almost 118 boys were born for every 100 girls.
The working-age population -- defined as those from 15 to 59 -- fell by 3.45 million to 937 million, adding to concerns about how the country will provide for the elderly, with 194 million people now 60 or over.
It was the first absolute drop in the working-age segment in "a considerable period of time", said National Bureau of Statistics director Ma Jiantang, adding that he expected it to "fall steadily at least through 2030".
China's wealth gap and population imbalances are major concerns for the ruling Communist Party, which places huge importance on preserving social stability to avoid any potential challenge to its grip on power.
An estimated 180,000 protests break out across China every year, many of them sparked by a wide range of social issues, including wage disputes and rural workers being denied residents' rights in cities.
But the government faces a "major dilemma" over how it confronts the problem of a rapidly ageing population, said analysts.
"For older generations, life is going to be very painful," Sun Wenguang, a retired academic from Shandong University in Jinan, told AFP.
"The cost of 24-hour care in Beijing is probably 7,000 RMB a month, and how will this be funded? The average manual worker in China earns about 2,000 RMB a month ($300), of course they don't want to share their money out."
Liang Zhongtang, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the government was reluctant to confront the population imbalance because of the sensitivity of the family planning policy.
"Actually the structural decline of the country's labour resources started long ago," he told AFP.
Most of the labour force was aged between 20 and 45, he said, with the proportion of older workers within that range increasing rapidly. "This means it is very hard for them to change their jobs or find a new employer", decreasing labour flexibility.
The problems of ageing and labour shortages were "severe" in the countryside, he said, but added: "Even though rural areas' social and economic problems are serious, they do not make onto the radar of mainstream (policy makers).
"They just ignore the problems plaguing this social stratum."
As late as 1982, the proportion of the population aged 60 or over in China was just five percent, but it now stands at 14.3 percent.
China's urban population rose to 712 million in 2012, up 21 million and adding to the strains on public services, while the rural population fell 14 million to 642 million.
Average per capita income was 26,959 yuan ($4,296) in the cities, compared to 7,917 yuan in the countryside, the statistics said.