In a significant policy change aimed at countering the country’s declining birth rate, rapidly aging population, and shrinking workforce, China will now permit married couples to have up to three children. The shift, announced by the nation’s ruling Communist Party on Monday, comes less than six years after raising the nationwide limit to two children. But that policy change failed to boost China’s birth rate or stave off a looming demographic crisis. Now, in addition to raising the limit again, China’s government says it will offer “supporting measures,” possibly including maternity leave and greater workplace protections for women. The timing and specifics of the new policies remain unclear, however.
Last year’s once-a-decade census in China revealed that the country’s birth rate had fallen for the fourth straight-year — dropping 15 percent from 2019 to 2020 — and that the percentage of the population over age 60 had risen from 13.3 percent in 2010 to 18.7 percent in 2020, while the working population (those aged 15 to 59) dropped from roughly 70 percent to 63 percent. The past decade has seen China’s slowest population growth since the 1950s, the census indicated. The fact that men outnumber women in the country, and that single mothers aren’t afforded the same support from the government as married couples, isn’t helping either.
The decision to raise the child limit was made during a meeting of the Communist Party Politburo on Monday, which was chaired by president Xi Jinping, according to the Xinhua state news agency. The party also reiterated that it would gradually raise the retirement age (it has one of the world’s lowest retirement ages) and boost benefits for its seniors, though again, without getting into specifics.
The announcement didn’t seem to impress many inside China, the South China Morning Post reported:
Many users on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, said they did not think the policy change would encourage couples to have more children, given steep real estate prices, long working hours and the intense competition and high prices for education in China. In an online poll by state news agency Xinhua, 28,000 out of 31,000 respondents said they “would not consider at all” having three children. About 1,600 respondents said they would be willing before the poll was removed on Monday.
That maps onto what BBC China correspondent Stephen McDonell has heard:
I have interviewed many young Chinese couples about this subject and it is hard to find those who want bigger families these days. Generations of Chinese people have lived without siblings and are used to small families - affluence has meant less need for multiple children to become family-supporting workers, and young professionals say they’d rather give one child more advantages than spread their income among several kids.
Indeed, most experts who responded to the news on Monday seem skeptical that allowing an additional child will do enough to reverse the national demographic trends. Many other countries are experiencing birth rate and population-growth declines, without having imposed draconian limits on how many kids people can have.
Hang Seng Bank chief economist Dan Wang told the Morning Post that, as was the case after China raised the child limit to two, there may be a temporary boost in the birth rate, but not a permanent one. “The high costs of housing and education, as well as a lack of job protection for women, are strong economic constraints on having children,” she said Monday. Another analyst speculated that the policy change, which came months before anyone expected, might mean more troubling data looms:
Yi Fuxian, a specialist in China’s demographics, said the timing of the announcement so soon after the census summary suggested the detailed data to come could be extremely worrying. “Maybe it’s because the real population data is too scary. Even if they have not published it, it probably frightened the decision makers,” Yi said.
CNN Business’s Laura He adds that China’s declining population growth is expected to have major implications for its economy:
Experts have said China’s labor force will peak in the next few years before shrinking by about 5% over the next decade. … That could mean trouble for the big economic policy objectives set by President Xi Jinping. He has laid out ambitions for China’s GDP to double by 2035.
And while some forecasters say China could surpass the United States as the world’s biggest economy by the end of this decade, it has a much bigger gap to close in terms of prosperity. China’s per capita GDP stands at $17,000, compared with a US figure of more than $63,000, according to the International Monetary Fund.
As the New York Times points out, the policy change is also a tacit acknowledgment that China’s one-child policy was a failure:
China’s family planning restrictions date to 1980, when the party first imposed a “one-child” policy to slow population growth and bolster the economic boom that was then just beginning. Officials often employed brutal tactics as they forced women to get abortions or be sterilized, and the policy soon became a source of public discontent …
The chorus of voices urging the party to do more has only grown in recent years. The central bank said in a starkly worded paper last month that the government could not afford to keep restricting procreation. Already, some local officials in some areas had been tacitly allowing couples to have three children.
The Times also highlights the political implications of the changes:
The party’s reluctance to abandon its right to dictate reproductive rights points to the power of such policies as tools of social control. Even as the country has struggled to raise birthrates, the authorities in the western region of Xinjiang have been forcing women of Muslim ethnic minorities, like the Uyghurs, to have fewer babies in an effort to suppress their population growth. A full reversal of the rules could also be seen as a repudiation of a deeply unpopular policy that the party has long defended.
In addition to the mandated and cultural shift away from larger families, the bottom line for many potential parents in China appears to be an economic one, and it remains unclear if the government will or can do enough to address that. As one Weibo user put it in a popular post on Monday, “I’m not buying three Rolls-Royces not because there’s any restriction, but because they’re expensive.”