China's population grew to 1.34 billion people last year, the National Bureau of Statistics announced Monday, marking a modest jump for a massive population and leading experts to suggest China may relax its generation-old one-child policy.
The figure of 1.3410 billion, which is preliminary and based on a sample survey, shows China added about 6.3 million people last year, up from 1.3347 billion at the end of 2009. A more accurate figure is expected to be released within the next few months after the government tallies the results of its 2010 census, the first in 10 years.
The number indicates a slower rate of growth than the previous year and experts said the decline in growth could help convince policy makers to relax the government's strict family planning limits.
Since 1979, the government has limited families in cities to one child and rural parents to two to control its population.
"China's population now is mainly growing because people are living longer, not because people are having lots of babies," said Cai Yong, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and an expert on China's population.
Cai said the figure reported on the National Bureau of Statistics website wasn't surprising but fell on the low end of the government's expectations. It could embolden policy makers to experiment with loosening the family planning policy to allow all couples in a handful of provinces to have two children if they want, he said.
China's population growth has been contracting since 1987 and the U.S. Census Bureau has projected it will peak at slightly less than 1.4 billion in 2026, with India overtaking China as the world's most populous nation in 2025.
Experts attribute the slowing growth rate to the strict family planning limits and to the country's urbanization and growing prosperity. The government says its family planning rules have prevented more than 400 million births since it was implemented three decades ago.
Cai said allowing more births now would help the country cope with looking after its large and growing elderly population.
"To have a stable society, you better start now, to think ahead of time because it takes 20 to 30 years to have another generation come down the line," he said.
China's National Population and Family Planning Commission has said that keeping the country's birth rate low will remain a priority for the next five years, and that its policies should remain basically stable. Calls to the commission rang unanswered Monday.
Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, calculated that the 2010 population figure reflects a growth rate of 4.7 people per thousand, compared with 5.5 per thousand in 2009.
"This just continues a declining trend for the growth rate," said Wang. "It's getting lower every year."