Married couples in China will be able to have as many as three children instead of two, the ruling Communist Party said Monday in a major shift in policy that comes as data show the country’s population is rapidly aging amid a decline in births. The world’s most populous country ended its long-held one-child policy in 2016 but that didn’t lead to the surge in births that many were expecting due in large part to how expensive it is to raise children in China’s cities. “To actively respond to the aging of the population … a couple can have three children,” state media Xinhua reported on Monday after a meeting of China’s political leadership led by President Xi Jinping. China’s leaders also said the country needs to raise the retirement age so people stay in the workforce longer.
The announcement marks a tacit recognition that the country’s limits on reproduction have “jeopardized the country’s future,” notes the New York Times. As the country’s population gets older, the number of working-age people is declining, putting its industrial strategy that has been at the heart of its explosive economic growth at risk. In what appeared to be an effort to make sure the increase in limits has the desired effect, the shift in policy will be accompanied by policies to ease the financial burden on couples that decide to have more children, although there are few details yet of what that could entail.
Despite these “supportive measures” comments on social media on Monday showed how much of the population remains skeptical they will be enough to convince young couples to have more children considering the high costs and long work schedules that are the norm in the country. “I have interviewed many young Chinese couples about this subject and it is hard to find those who want bigger families these days,” writes the BBC’s Stephen McDonell. “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.”
China’s fertility rate is currently at 1.3, which is below the level needed to maintain a stable population. A total of 2.65 million babies were born in China last year, an 18 percent decline from 2019. Census data released earlier this month was a stark wake up call that suggested the population is aging faster than had been expected. The percentage of the population that is between 15 to 59 yeas old fell to 63.3 percent last year from 70.1 percent a decade ago. At the same time, the share of the population that is 65 and older grew to 13.5 percent from 8.9 percent.
Amid the alarming figures, some have been calling on the government to end all limits on reproduction. “This is without a doubt a step in the right direction, but still it’s a bit timid,” Shuang Ding, chief economist at Standard Chartered in Hong Kong, told Reuters. ”A fully liberalized birth policy should have been implemented at least five years ago, but it’s too late now, although it’s better late than never.” And human rights organizations say that even a higher limit is still a violation of sexual and reproductive rights. “Governments have no business regulating how many children people have. Rather than ‘optimizing’ its birth policy, China should instead respect people’s life choices and end any invasive and punitive controls over people’s family planning decisions,” Joshua Rosenzweig, who heads up Amnesty Internatioal’s China team, said.
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