HONG KONG -- The Chinese government said on Thursday that the country's population continued to grow last year, despite the coronavirus pandemic which saw deaths exceed births in a number of regional states.
Beijing's terse announcement, however, stopped short in presenting any figures.
China's National Bureau of Statistics released a single sentence statement on its official website Thursday afternoon, saying, "According to understanding, the population of our country has continued to increase, while specific numbers will be published in the Seventh National Population Census Bulletin."
The bureau did not specify when the census report will be released. A spokeswoman last month had put the planned timing at early April.
Thursday's unusual announcement was probably triggered by a report this week in the Financial Times which said the new census would show China's first population decline since the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous socio-economic program five decades ago that led to the deaths of millions by famine and other forms of unnatural deaths under Chairman Mao Zedong's rule.
According to the FT report, China's total population in 2020 was expected to be reported as less than 1.4 billion. It was previously reported as more than 1.4 billion for 2019.
Beijing has been promoting policies to boost population growth and reverse falling fertility rates by relaxing stringent controls on births, most notably its controversial "one-child policy."
A decline in population could see India pass China as the world's most populous nation. "The census results will have a huge impact on how the Chinese people see their country and how various government departments work," said Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at think tank Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the FT report.
The census was completed in December. Liu Aihua, census bureau spokeswoman, said two weeks ago that the delay in releasing results was partly due a need for "more preparation work."
Chinese business publication Yicai reported earlier this month that new births could fall below 10 million a year by 2025, the final year of the country's new five-year economic plan. To avert this, Dong Yuzheng, director of the Guangdong Academy of Population Development, said the authorities would need to fully abolish all controls on births and more importantly, formulate more comprehensive measures to support childbearing families.
China had 14.65 million new births in 2019. Registrations of newborns reportedly declined 15% last year.
Hong Kong as well as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan all have reported that deaths exceeded births last year. The COVID outbreak has added to worries of shrinking populations due to aging and restricted immigration.