Regional Demographic Trends in China: Birth Rates, Population Changes, and Domestic Migration

Posted by Written by Arendse Huld Reading Time: 9 minutes

China’s population is shrinking, but not at the same rate in every region of the country. Although the past decade’s demographic shift generally shows an inverse correlation between income and fertility rates, some provincial data appears to counter this trend, indicating that wealth is not the only factor affecting birth rates. In this article, we look at China’s population by province to discuss regional demographic trends, analyzing the varying birth rates, aging populations, urbanization, and domestic migration patterns.

In 2022, China experienced its first drop in population in almost 60 years. The overall population fell to 1.4118 billion, down from 1.4126 billion a year earlier, with a decline of 850,000 people. Demographic modeling by the UN suggests that China’s population may continue to decrease to 1.313 billion by 2050 and fall below 800 million by 2100. 

This ongoing demographic shift, driven by low birth rates and a rapidly aging population, will have a profound impact on China’s future social and economic development.

However, not every region of China is experiencing population decline at the same rate, with some provinces even recording increases in birth rates and positive rates of migration in 2022. The causes for the varying birth rates and population decline across the country also differ from region to region, and cannot always be ascribed to increasing wealth and GDP growth. 

At the same time, while larger metropolises are experiencing population decreases, previously under-developed areas of China are becoming increasingly attractive as local economies, investment, infrastructure, and work opportunities improve, which is changing domestic migration patterns. 

In this article, we look at the latest local data on the 31 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions in the Chinese mainland (hereinafter “provinces”) to discuss the current regional population trends and shifts.

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Overview of local demographic trends 

China’s most populous province is Guangdong, which had a population of 126.6 million at the end of 2022. This is followed by Shandong, with 101.6 million people. China’s least populous areas were the Western provinces of Tibet and Qinghai, which recorded just 3.6 million and 6 million people respectively in 2022. 

Highest population decline 

The provinces in the northeast recorded some of the lowest birth rates and natural rates of increase in China in 2022. Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, and Hubei saw the lowest rates of natural increase, as well as some of the highest drops in overall population. The country’s lowest rate of natural increase, which measures the difference between the number of births and the number of deaths (or the birth rate minus the death rate), was recorded in Heilongjiang, with -5.75 per mill (or per thousand). However, the largest overall drop in population was recorded in Liaoning, which had 324,000 fewer people in 2022 than the previous year. Liaoning also recorded a very low rate of natural increase, at -4.96 per mill.

Some central and western provinces also experienced relatively high rates of population decline, such as Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, and Chongqing. However, Hubei, Chongqing, and Sichuan all recorded slight increases in overall population despite negative rates of natural increase, indicating that these areas are continuing to see immigration inflows. 

The municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin also all recorded overall population decreases, with Beijing and Shanghai both experiencing a negative rate of natural increase. Tianjin had not yet released data on birth and death rates for 2022 at the time of writing. 

Overall, 18 provinces recorded a negative rate of natural increase in 2022, while 13 recorded overall decreases in population size. 

Highest population increase 

The provinces with the highest birth rates in 2022 are generally located in the south and southeast or are relatively rural provinces with small populations and large ethnic minority groups, such as Ningxia, Qinghai, and Tibet.

The province with the highest population increase was Tibet, with a rate of 8.76 per mill. This is despite Tibet’s overall population size dropping by 20,000, suggesting a high rate of emigration despite birth rates remaining positive. 

Meanwhile, the province with the largest increase in population was Zhejiang, whose population grew by 370,000 people in 2022, despite a relatively low rate of natural increase at 0.04 per mill. Other provinces which recorded population increases included Anhui and Hubei, which both added 140,000 people in 2022 despite having negative rates of natural increase. 

On the flip side, Guangdong experienced a relatively high rate of natural increase at 3.33 per mill, despite the overall population falling by 272,000 people, which means birth rates remained relatively strong in China’s most populous and wealthiest province. 

Aging population 

China’s population is aging at a rapid rate. At the end of 2022, China had 280.04 million people aged over 60, up from 267.36 million at the end of 2021. This accounts for 19.8 percent of China’s total population, an increase of 0.9 percentage points from the previous year. Meanwhile, the proportion of China’s working-age population – those between 16 and 59 years old – decreased by 0.5 percentage points to 62 percent at the end of 2022, totaling 875.56 million people. 

As with China’s birth rate, the population is not aging at the same rate in every part of the country. Broadly speaking, the northern and eastern provinces had the oldest populations, while the populations of the southern and western provinces were younger. The aging population can also be split across an urban-rural divide, with the metropolises and highly urbanized provinces, such as Jiangsu, being home to older populations than more rural and underdeveloped areas. 

Reflecting the low rates of natural increase, China’s northeastern provinces also have the oldest populations. The province with the oldest population in China is Liaoning, with 27.59 percent of the population over the age of 60, followed closely by Jilin. Meanwhile, over 20 percent of residents in all four municipalities – Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, and Chongqing – were over the age of 60.

The country’s youngest population can be found in Tibet, whose 14-and-below population accounted for 24.53 percent of the total in 2020, per the latest available data. Other more rural provinces also have higher proportions of young people; residents under the age of 15 accounted for over 20 percent of the total population in Guizhou, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Ningxia, and Yunnan. 

Domestic migration 

Another dimension of China’s population shift is changing patterns of domestic migration. In 2022, several provinces in China experienced a net increase in population size, despite having negative rates of natural increase. The provinces with the highest net increases in population were Zhejiang, Anhui, and Hubei, all of which had negative rates of natural increase. This suggests that these provinces are experiencing positive net migration rates. 

Meanwhile, several provinces recorded decreases in populations despite having positive rates of natural increase. These include Guangdong (-272,000 people) and Tibet (-20,000) people, suggesting these areas experienced migration outflows. 

Urbanization and migration to lower-tier cities 

2022 saw a further increase in urbanization in China, with the nationwide urbanization rate increasing by 0.5 percentage points from 2021 to reach 65.22 percent. While the trend of people moving from the countryside to urban centers is nothing new, what has changed more recently is which cities people are choosing to move to. 

Over the past few years, China’s smaller urban centers, such as the second and third-tier cities in China’s city-tier system, are becoming increasingly attractive as the number of economic opportunities grows, while rising costs of living in the first-tier cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen) acts as a deterrence. 

In fact, three of China’s four municipalities (with the notable exception of Chongqing) all recorded population declines, as did other large metropolises, such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Meanwhile, smaller provincial capitals have recorded increases, in particular in central, southern, and eastern China. 

The provincial capital with the highest population increase was Changsha, the capital of the central province of Hunan, which added 182,000 people in 2022. This was followed by Hangzhou, which absorbed almost half of Zhejiang province’s total population increase in 2022 with 172,000 additional people, and Hefei, the capital of Anhui province, which recorded 169,000 additional people. 

Meanwhile, the areas with the highest urbanization rates were the municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin, all of which have over 80 percent urbanization rates. The provinces with the highest rates of urbanization were Guangdong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Liaoning, all of which have urbanization rates of over 70 percent. 

Movement of migrant workers 

The latest data on the movement of migrant workers – broadly, people who leave rural areas to find work in urban areas – suggests that people are increasingly looking for work nearer to home. According to data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), there were a total of 295.62 million migrant workers in 2022, an increase of 1.1 percent from 2021. Among them, 58.9 percent chose to stay within their province, a slight increase from 2021, while 41.1 percent traveled outside their province to find work.

However, this proportion changes drastically from region to region. In the eastern regions (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Shandong, Guangdong, and Hainan), 85 percent of migrant workers chose to stay within their province, compared to just 44.4 percent from the central regions (Shanxi, Anhui, Jiangxi, Henan, Hubei, and Hunan). 

Despite migrant workers from central China being more likely to leave their home province, they still remained within the central provinces at higher rates than before. The data shows that the number of migrant workers traveling to the central and western regions has increased faster than the number traveling to the east.

In 2022, the number of migrant workers employed in the eastern regions increased by just 0.1 percent year-on-year, while the number employed in the central regions increased by 3 percent year-on-year, and in western regions (Inner Mongolia, Guangxi, Chongqing, Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan, Tibet, Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, and Xinjiang), the number increased by 2.5 percent year-on-year. 

Meanwhile, the number of migrants leaving the northeastern provinces (Heilongjiang, Liaoning, and Jilin) decreased by 3.9 percent year-on-year, suggesting a slowing outflow of people. 

What is causing the population decline in some regions of China? 

On a national level, the decrease in population is attributable to a drop in birth rates and an aging population. China’s national rate of natural increase was -0.6 per mill in 2022. This is due to a number of factors, including the legacy of the “One Child Policy” (now the “Three Child Policy”), rising incomes, higher levels of education and participation of women in the workforce, and changing attitudes toward family life. At the same time, improvements to standards of living and access to healthcare mean that people are living longer, which is contributing to the aging population. 

In general, we can see that provinces with higher incomes and higher rates of urbanization tend to have lower rates of natural increase; that is, lower birth rates or higher death rates. This is evident in areas such as Shanghai and Beijing, which have the highest levels of disposable income per capita in the country, at RMB 79,610 and RMB 77,415 in 2022, respectively. Zhejiang and Jiangsu, which recorded disposable incomes per capita of RMB 60,302 and RMB 49,862, respectively, also have relatively low birth rates. 

Inversely, more rural and lower-income provinces, such as Tibet, Qinghai, Guizhou, and Ningxia, have higher birth rates and younger overall populations. 

However, the provinces with the lowest birth rates – those in the northeast – are not the wealthiest in the country, and some richer and more urbanized provinces have relatively high birth rates. This suggests that income and urbanization are not the sole reasons for the varying birth rates across the country.

Guangdong province, for instance, is one example to the contrary. Despite being one of the wealthiest regions of China with a per capita GDP and disposable income per capita above the national average, it had a relatively high birth rate of 8.3 per mill in 2022. This is above the national average of 6.77 per mill and considerably higher than the nationwide low of 3.34 per mill recorded in Heilongjiang, despite its per capita GDP being less than half of that of Guangdong.

Some analysts have suggested that this discrepancy may be attributable to cultural differences between the north and south of China, with people in southern provinces being more traditional and family-oriented.  

The differences in fertility rates between the northeastern and southern provinces may also be the result of uneven implementation of family planning policy. Provinces in the northeast may have been subject to stricter implementation of family planning policies due to a higher presence of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and other public institutions. Meanwhile, areas with a historically lower presence of these institutions, such as the southern, central, and western provinces, would have been subject to less strict implementation. 

Moreover, the northeast has also experienced very high rates of population outflow, particularly of the working-age population, which has reduced the size of the childbearing cohort. The northeastern provinces are therefore experiencing dual population pressure from low birth rates and high rates of emigration. 

The impact of shifting local demographics 

China’s changing demographics will have a profound impact on its society and economy over many decades to come. The changes are being felt all over China, but not necessarily to the same degree in each region. The varying rates of fertility, population aging, and migration that each region experiences will inform how the different governments formulate policies related to family planning, maternity and paternity leave, childcare, pension insurance and elderly care, and education and labor.

For companies, it is important to be aware of shifting regional demographic trends in China as it can provide insights into how local labor forces and consumer bases will change. Understanding local populations and how they are changing can help companies better position their investments, services, and products. Shifting local demographics may also have significant implications for market dynamics, labor laws, taxation, and other aspects of doing business in China. 

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