Chinese couples will officially now be allowed to have two children, bringing an end to the nearly four-decade old one child policy. The move, which was previewed back in July, was publicly announced in a short item from Xinhua and came after a four-day meeting of the Communist Party’s central committee.
Though it’s been effective at slowing population growth, the policy has been highly controversial, contributing to human rights abuses including forced abortions, the country’s alarming gender imbalance and a large population of unregistered “hidden children” denied access to social services. But the reason it’s being eased now have more to do with China’s shifting economic priorities.
The one-child policy was introduced in the late 1970s over fears that the country’s population growth would outstrip its resources. Today, China’s more pressing anxieties are about declining birth rates and a rapidly graying population—the country’s working age population fell by 3.71 million last year. Xinhua noted that the change was made in order to “balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population.”
These anxieties were only made more acute after last summer’s grim indicators for the future of the Chinese economy. Today’s announcement came along with a set of proposals for China’s five-year plan, which goes into effect next year, including doubling the country’s 2010 GDP per capita by 2020.
The shift to a two-child policy is unlikely to contribute all that much to that goal. Couples in rural areas were already allowed to have two children if the first one was a girl under the original policy. A 2013 reform allowed couples to have a second baby as long as one parent was an only child—a category that included most couples born after 1980. Only about 12 percent of the couples eligible to have a second child under the new laws have applied to do so, the New York Times reports, which is not all that surprising given that fertility rates are falling in other rapidly developing East Asian countries that don’t have any restrictions on the number of children. Today’s new reform is unlikely to cause a new baby boom.