China’s birth rate has fallen to its lowest since the formation of the People’s Republic of China 70 years ago – despite the easing of the much-criticized one-child policy.

The birth rate was 10.48 per 1,000 in 2019 – the lowest since 1949, the National Bureau of Statistics said.

The number of babies born in 2019 dropped by 580,000 to 14.65 million.

The country’s birth rate has been falling for years – posing a challenge for the world’s second-biggest economy.

Despite the birth rate falling, a lower death rate meant China’s population hit 1.4bn in 2019, inching up from 1.39bn.

But the falling birth rate is raising fears of a “demographic timebomb” – that is, a smaller working-age population having to support a bigger, retired population.

China’s birth rate is lower than the US, which stood at 12 per 1,000 people in 2017 (the most recent data available), but higher than Japan’s figure of 8.

In England and Wales, the birth rate was 11.6 in 2019, compared with 9 in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the figure was 12.1 in 2018 (the most recent data available).

The overall global birth rate was 18.65 in 2017, according to the World Bank.

In 1979, the Chinese government introduced a nationwide “one-child policy” – with various exceptions – to slow population growth.

Families that violated the rules faced fines, loss of employment and sometimes forced abortions.

But the policy has been blamed for a severe gender imbalance – with males still outnumbering females by more than 30 million in the 2019 figures.

In 2015, the government ended its one-child policy, allowing couples to have two children.

But that reform has failed to reverse the country’s falling birth rate – despite a two-year increase immediately afterward.

Experts say this is because the relaxing of the policy did not come with other relevant changes that support family life – such as monetary support for child care and increased paternity leave.

Most people can’t afford more than one child, they say