China is reportedly considering raising its famous one-child policy to a two-child policy. This is the latest in a series of exceptions the country has been adding to the rule. Couples in many rural areas are already allowed to have a second child, as are members of the country’s ethnic minorities. Under a change made in 2013, many couples got the right to have a second child if they themselves were only children—a significant group given that the policy has been in place since 1980.
But the new policy, which China experts say could be unveiled as soon as the end of this year, would make two-children the universal standard, and further signal the gradual abandonment of a policy put in place long before China’s economic boom due to concerns about overpopulation.
The policy’s implementation has long been rife with horrific abuses and has contributed to a socially disastrous gender gap due to the (technically illegal) practice of sex-selective abortion. (If people can have only one child, they often want that child to be male.) It is deeply unpopular with the Chinese public. It’s also bad for China’s bottom line: China’s working-age population fell by 3.71 million last year, and its over-60 population will rapidly expand in the coming years.
But it’s not clear how much of an effect the change will have on demographic realities. Chinese parents may not like the policy, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually desperate to have a second baby. Surveys show a significant number of couples are concerned about the economic pressures of having a second child. And while the one-child policy has undoubtedly had an effect on China’s birthrate, there’s a good chance fertility rates would be dropping even without it, as they are in every other country in East Asia. (Macau and Hong Kong, where the one-child policy is not in effect, actually have lower total fertility rates than mainland China.)
As Russia’s efforts to boost birthrates show, even if large numbers of Chinese couples did start to have second children, it could take decades to affect total numbers given the low number of potential parents born during the strict one-child years. In any case, two children per family is still below the demographic replacement level for most countries.
Moving from a one- to two-child policy may be a (small) victory for personal freedom. And the good news is that the once prevalent stigma against having girls already seems to be fading. But the graying of China’s population will continue.