Beijing, Apr 28: China's population is aging rapidly, with half the people now living in cities, the government said Thursday.
The data from a national census carried out late last year will fuel debate about whether China should continue with its "one-child" policy, experts said.
The census showed a sharp drop in the number of young people in China, with those under age 14 now accounting for 16.6 percent of the country's 1.34 billion people, down 6.3 percentage points from 2000.
The number of people over age 60 rose to 13.3 percent of the total population, up nearly 3 percentage points from 10 years ago.
The rapid aging has fueled worries that China will not be able to sustain its fast economic growth of the past three decades, with fewer young people available to work in factories and build the roads that transformed China into the world's second biggest economy after the United States.
That economic transformation has also seen a surge in urbanization. The census results, released at a news conference Thursday, showed that 49.7 percent of the population now lives in cities, up from about 36 percent 10 years ago. The total population figure of 1.34 billion was released earlier this year.
The figures reflect the one-child policy, with the average household now numbering 3.1 people, down from 3.44 a decade ago.
There has been growing speculation among Chinese media, experts and ordinary people about whether the government will soon relax that policy -- introduced in 1980 as a temporary measure to curb surging population growth -- and allow more people to have two children. Currently, most urban couples are limited to one child and rural families to two.
The speculation has grown despite the fact that President Hu Jintao -- on the eve of the release of the census data -- told a meeting of top Communist Party leaders convened to discuss population issues that China will maintain its strict family planning policy to keep the birth rate low and the economy growing.
Demographers advocating changes to the one-child policy took a counterintuitive look at Hu's speech, suggesting his decision to publicly address family planning now meant there was fresh debate among the leadership about how best to manage it.
Wang Feng, a population expert and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, called the timing of the comments ahead of the census "highly significant."
"I take this as an important signal that the debate has reached a high level and that changes will be on the way," he said.
China credits its family planning limits with preventing 400 million additional births and helping break a traditional preference for large families that had perpetuated poverty. But there are serious concerns about the policy's side effects, such as selective abortions of girls and a rapidly aging population.
The official Xinhua News Agency said Hu told top Communist leaders on Tuesday that the country would stick to its basic family planning policy and continue to maintain a low birth rate.
It said Hu briefly touched on concerns about population structure and the growing number of older people, saying that social security and services for the elderly should be improved. He also called on officials to formulate strategies to cope with more retirees. AP