China has announced that it will allow each couple to have up to three children, marking the end of a strict two-child policy.
The change was approved by President Xi Jinping in a politburo meeting, state media outlet Xinhua said.
It comes after a census published every 10 years showed that China’s population grew at its slowest pace in decades.
This added pressure on Beijing to boost measures for couples to have more babies and avert a population decline.
Shrinking populations are problematic due to the inverted age structure, with more old people than young.
When that happens, there won’t be enough workers in the future to support the elderly, and there may be an increased demand for health and social care.
What did the census say?
The census, released earlier this month, showed that around 12 million babies were born last year – a significant decrease from the 18 million in 2016, and the lowest number of births recorded since the 1960s.
The census was conducted in late 2020 where some seven million census takers had gone door-to-door to collect information from Chinese households.
Given the sheer number of people surveyed, it is considered the most comprehensive resource on China’s population, which is important for future planning.
It was widely expected after the census data results were released that China would relax its family policy rules.
How are people reacting?
“Allowing a couple to have three children as well as the implementation of relevant support measures, will help to improve the country’s population structure, actively respond to the aging population, and preserve the country’s human resource advantages,” Xinhua said in a report on the meeting.
But on social media, Chinese people seemed less than excited about the new measures.
“[We can have] three kids, but the problem is I don’t even want to have one,” said one social media user on micro-blogging site Weibo.
“Do you know most young people already find it so exhausting to take care of themselves?”
One Beijing resident who spoke to the BBC ahead of the announcement echoed these thoughts, saying she wanted to “live my life” without the “constant worries” of raising a child.
It reflects the changing attitudes of many young urban Chinese toward childbirth – and so it is unclear how big an impact the new policy will realistically have.
What were China’s previous policies?
Even in 2016, when the government ended its controversial one-child policy and allowed couples to have two children, it failed to reverse the country’s falling birth rate despite a two-year increase immediately afterwards.
Ms Yue Su, principal economist from The Economist Intelligence Unit, said: “While the second-child policy had a positive impact on the birth rate, it proved short-term in nature.”
China’s population trends have over the years been largely shaped by the one-child policy, which was introduced in 1979 to slow population growth.
Families that violated the rules faced fines, loss of employment and sometimes forced abortions.
The one-child policy also led to a severe gender imbalance in the country – in a culture that historically favours boys over girls.
“This poses problems for the marriage market, especially for men with less socioeconomic resources,” Dr Mu Zheng, from the National University of Singapore’s sociology department, said.
Can China lift birth restrictions entirely?
Experts had ahead of China’s latest census, speculated that birth restrictions might be lifted entirely – though it appears as though China is treading cautiously.
But others had pointed out that such a move could potentially lead to “other problems” – pointing out the huge disparity between city dwellers and rural people.
As much as women living in expensive cities such as Beijing and Shanghai may wish to delay or avoid childbirth, those in the countryside are likely to still follow tradition and want large families, they say.
“If we free up policy, people in the countryside could be more willing to give birth than those in the cities, and there could be other problems,” a policy insider had earlier told Reuters, noting that it could lead to poverty and employment pressures among rural families.
Experts had earlier warned that any impact on China’s population, such as a decline, could have a vast effect on other parts of the world.
Dr Yi Fuxian, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said: “China’s economy has grown very quickly, and many industries in the world rely on China. The scope of the impact of a population decline would be very wide.”
BBCFollow us on social media