The results from the country's most recent census showed that since 2010, China's population aged 60 and older has increased by 5.44 per cent, to reach 264 million people.
Already, almost every fifth person in China - 18.7 per cent - is older than 60. Meanwhile, the working age population is in decline. The cohort of people aged 15 to 59 actually declined by 6.79 percentage points, to now make up 63 per cent of the population.
"The continued ageing of the population is putting pressure on long-term balanced development," said Ning Jizhe, the director of the statistics institute.
Overall population growth has also slowed, to only about 0.53 per cent a year, the slowest rate China has seen in decades. Experts warn this demographic trend could put the brakes on the world's second-largest economy.
One cause for the slower growth rate are signs that many Chinese are unwilling to have more children. State media have described the baby bust as "alarming."
For example, the number of births recorded in 2020 was already 15 per cent lower than the number reported for 2019, according to government data released earlier this year. The actual numbers dropped from 11.79 million to 10.04 million.
"In urban areas, high costs of housing, health care and education have dampened many couples' enthusiasm to have babies," noted a comment in Chinese financial newspaper Caixin.
Drop in marriages
Adding to that problem, China is seeing a drop in the number of marriages, even as the divorce rate rises. Already, the divorce rate is higher than in Japan or South Korea. Many couples are also waiting until later in life to get married and start a family.
A 2016 policy change lifted a 1979 law that limited many families to only one child. However, that only saw a brief rise in the birth rate, followed by a fall. Many experts argue that nearly four decades of the one-child policy have changed the country's social mores: Now many people are used to the idea of small families.
Ning said the downward population trend is likely to continue and become more pronounced.
The new numbers are based on the first census in 10 years. It was conducted in November and December and was the country's seventh since 1953.
Some 7 million census takers went door to door or conducted interviews on the phone or online.
The statistics office, which had delayed the publication of the data several times, rejected reports that the population had already shrunk in the past year. However, experts cited in the Global Times newspaper, which is close to the communist party, said they expect to start seeing a population decline either this year or next.
Independent experts also expressed doubt about the official numbers, which they claimed were too high.
"I concluded that China’s population began to shrink in 2018, and that the real population in 2020 was unlikely to exceed 1.28 billion, far fewer than the officially stated 1.4 billion," says Yi Fuxian of the University of Wisconsin.
"This means that China's social, economic, educational, national defence, foreign policy, and various policies are based on incorrect population data."
He said his research has shown multiple discrepancies. For example, data in 2000 recorded 17.8 million births, but 14 years later, census data only recorded 13.7 million 14-year-olds in the country. He said he thinks the birth rate has been reported at too high a rate for years.
Other problems could crop up because of double counting that can occur with China's system of social registration. Some communities have also been known to play up their population levels in the hopes this translates into more central government funding for community projects.
Should China's population decline, experts warn that consumption levels will also see a drop, which will be a blow to any company relying on sales to the Chinese market.
Domestically, the trend could also force an unpopular discussion about forcing changes to the country's pension system.
Under current law, women can retire when they are between the ages of 50 and 55, while men may retire at age 60. But the rules were drafted at a time when life expectancy was significantly shorter in China, which might not be possible to maintain if the country is to have enough workers to support retiree.