China’s birthrate plummeted for a fifth straight year in 2021, bringing the world’s most populous country closer to the potentially seismic moment when its population will begin to shrink.

The precipitous decline has hastened a looming demographic crisis that economists and demographers warn could reshape the country’s economic vitality and even its political stability. The drop in births continued despite the government’s relaxing of its notorious “one child” policy beginning in 2016 and, last year, the rules that limited families to two children.

The number of births fell to 10.6 million in 2021, compared with 12 million the year before, the National Bureau of Statistics reported on Monday. That was the lowest number since the Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It is fewer even than in 1961, when the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s economic policy, resulted in widespread famine and death.

“China is facing a demographic crisis that is beyond the imagination of the Chinese authorities and the international community,” said Yi Fuxian, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has long argued that China’s Communist Party leaders were underreporting population figures.

The decline in birthrate and the increased life expectancy that has accompanied China’s economic transformation over the last four decades means there will soon be a decline in the number of people of working age relative to the growing number of people too old to work. That could result in labor shortages, which could hamper economic growth and decrease tax revenue.

According to the data released on Monday, China’s population still grew last year but only slightly, climbing to 1.412 billion. However, for the first time since the Great Leap Forward era 60 years ago, the number of people who died — 10.1 million — approached the number of those born.

At that rate, the population will soon begin to decline, a consequence of the “one child” policy and social and economic conditions that have increasingly led women to postpone motherhood or forgo it entirely. In recent years the government has tried to encourage families to have more children, but so far without success.

“Basically, in a country with a large population like China, if the difference between the number of births and the number of deaths is only a few hundred thousand, it basically belongs in the range of zero growth,” He Yafu, an independent demographer in the southern city of Zhanjiang, said in a telephone interview.

The trend, he warned, “cannot be reversed.”

Claire Fu contributed research

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