The number of children born in China declined for the second straight year in 2018 despite the country relaxing its one-child policy two years ago, government data released on Monday showed.

As many as 17.86 million children were born in 2016, followed by 17.23 million the next year and 15.23 million in 2018. The birth rate declined from 12.43 newborns per 1,000 people in 2017 to 10.94 in 2018.

The number of children born in the year was the lowest since 1961, when 11.87 million babies were born, South China Morning Post reported. It was the last year of the great famine which starved millions to death and led to a decline in the birth rate.

Demographer He Yafu told Bloomberg that it was the third-lowest birth rate since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The data is likely to raise concerns about China’s economy, which has been slowing down even as signs of stabilisation suggest that efforts to reduce the pace of deceleration have been effective.

In the last quarter, the economy expanded at the slowest rate since the 2009 financial crisis as the government dealt with a debt problem and the fallout of a trade war with the United States.

The drop in the number of newborns is set to continue as the female population aged between 15 and 49, which the country’s National Bureau of Statistics defines as “child-bearing age”, declined four million in 2017.

The number of people aged over 60 now constitute 17.9% of the Chinese population, adding to its demographic challenges and fuelling fears that the country might be headed towards economic stagnation like Japan.

However, unlike Japan, China is “getting old before getting rich”, a phrase that, according to the South China Morning Post, is widely used in the media.

(Credit: South China Morning Post)

The state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has projected that the population could start shrinking from 2027 – three years earlier than expected – if the birth rate held steady at 1.6 children per woman. The population, which was 1.39 billion in 2017, could fall to 1.172 billion by 2065, it added.

“China should not only fully relax the family planning policy, but also introduce policies to encourage births,” demographer He told Bloomberg. “Long-term low fertility rates will bring a series of negative effects on the economy and society, leading to the increasingly serious aging of the population, a decreasing labor force and a higher dependency ratio.”