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China said Monday that it would allow all married couples to have three children, ending a two-child policy that failed to increase the country’s declining birth rates and avert a demographic crisis.
The announcement by the ruling Communist Party is an acknowledgment that its reproductive restraints, the toughest in the world, have threatened the country’s future. The labor pool is shrinking and the population is graying, threatening the industrial strategy China has pursued for decades to move from poverty to economic power.
But it is far from clear that further policy easing will pay off. People in China reacted coolly to the party’s earlier move in 2016 to allow couples to have two children. For them, such interventions do little to alleviate their fear of rising educational costs and support from aging parents, exacerbated by the lack of day care and the ubiquitous culture of long hours.
Alluding to those concerns, the party also hinted on Monday that it would improve Maternity leave and protection at work, promises to make it easier for couples to have more children. But this protection is lacking for single mothers in China who, despite the urge for more children, still do not have access to benefits.
The number of births in China has fallen for four consecutive years, including in 2020 when the number of babies born fell to its lowest level since the Mao era. The country’s overall fertility rate – an estimate of the number of children born in a woman’s life – is now 1.3, well below the 2.1 reproductive rate, increasing the likelihood of a shrinking population over time.
Monday’s announcement still splits the difference between individual reproductive rights and government restrictions on women’s bodies. Prominent voices within China have called on the party to lift its birth restrictions altogether. But Beijing under Xi Jinping, the party leader who has pushed for more control in the daily lives of the country’s 1.4 billion people, has resisted.
“It is nowhere near enough to open it to up to three children,” said Huang Wenzheng, demography expert at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based research center. “It should be fully liberalized and childbirth should be strongly encouraged.”
“This should be viewed as a crisis for the survival of the Chinese nation, beyond the pandemic and other environmental issues,” added Mr. Huang. “There should never have been a birth control policy. So there is no question whether that is too late. ”
The party announced this after a meeting of the Politburo, a top decision-making body, although it was not immediately clear when the change would take effect. Admitting that raising the birth line may not be enough, the party also pledged to step up support for families, but without giving details.
China’s family planning restrictions date back to 1980 when the party first imposed a “one-child” policy to slow population growth and fuel the then-beginning economic boom. Officials often used brutal tactics to force women to have abortions or sterilization, and politics soon became a source of public discontent.
When Chinese officials began to understand the impact of the country’s aging population in 2013, the government allowed parents from one-child families to have two children themselves. Two years later the limit was raised to two children for everyone.
The chorus of voices calling on the party to do more has only grown in recent years. The central bank said in a concise paper last month that the government could not afford to restrict reproduction any further. In some areas, some local officials had already tacitly allowed couples to have three children.
But more and more couples are now accepting the concept that one child is enough, a cultural shift that has dragged birth rates down. And some say they don’t care about kids at all, even after the last announcement.
“No matter how many babies they open, I won’t have any because children are too annoying and expensive,” said Li Shan, a 26-year-old product manager at an Internet company in Beijing. “I am impatient and am afraid that I will not be able to raise the child well.”
The party’s announcement is unlikely to change demographic trends in China.
“Decision makers have likely realized that the population situation is relatively serious,” said He Yafu, an independent demographer from the southern Chinese city of Zhanjiang. “But just opening the policy to three children and not promoting the births as a whole, I don’t think that the birth rate will increase significantly. Many do not want a second child, let alone a third. “
Still, the news was relieved by some women who had a third child but were careful not to be punished for breaking the rules.
“My cell phone almost fell on the floor,” said Yolanda Ouyang, a 39-year-old employee of a state-owned company in the Guangxi area who hid her third child for two years because she feared they would be fired.
“I am so happy and shocked,” said Ms. Ouyang. “Finally my child can come outside and play outside.”
The party’s announcement quickly met with criticism on Weibo, a popular social media platform. “Don’t you know that most young people are tired enough just to try to feed themselves?” wrote a user referring to a common complaint about the rising cost of living. Other users complained that raising the birth line would not help curb discrimination against women in the workplace as they have more children.
In recognition of these complaints, the party pledged on Monday to improve child-friendly benefits such as maternity leave and “protect the legitimate rights and interests of women in employment”.
The party also said it would raise funds to expand services for the country’s retirees. In 2020, the number of people over 60 in China was 264 million, making up about 18.7 percent of the population. According to the government, this number is expected to grow to more than 300 million people, or about a fifth of the population, by 2025.
The party’s reluctance to give up its right to dictate reproductive rights indicates the power of such politics as an instrument of social control. Although the country has struggled to increase the birth rate, authorities in the western Xinjiang region are forcing Muslim ethnic minority women such as the Uyghurs to have fewer babies in order to stifle their population growth.
A complete repeal of the rules could also be seen as a rejection of deeply unpopular policies that the party has long defended.
“When a government turns around in the West today, it’s kind of embarrassing,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor of social sciences and public order at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “But in a country like China, where the same party has been in charge for 70 years or so, it makes a statement on the policies implemented. So I think any change that goes through will be fairly gradual. “
For decades, China’s family planning restrictions enabled the authorities to fine most couples with more than one child and to force hundreds of millions of Chinese women to undergo invasive surgery.
Gao Bin, a 27-year-old lottery ticket seller in eastern Qingdao City, remembered how his mother did had to flee to three different locations just to escape family planning officials because she wanted to keep him. He said his mother still cries when she talks about those days.
“To be honest, I was quite angry when I saw the announcement of this policy,” said Mr. Gao. “I think the government lacks a humane attitude when it comes to fertility.”
Claire Fu and Elsie Chen Research contributed.