China says it will allow couples to have 3 children, instead of 2
China said Monday it would allow all married couples to have three children, ending a two-child policy that has failed to boost the country’s declining birth rate and avert a population crisis.
The ruling Communist Party’s announcement represents recognition that its limits to reproduction, the most severe in the world, have endangered the country’s future. The labor pool is shrinking and the population is aging, threatening the industrial strategy that China has used for decades to lift itself out of poverty and become an economic powerhouse.
But it is far from clear that further policy easing will pay off. The Chinese reacted coldly to the party’s previous decision in 2016 to allow couples to have two children. For them, such measures do little to allay their anxiety about the rising cost of educating and supporting aging parents, compounded by the lack of child care facilities and the pervasive culture of long working hours.
In a nod to those concerns, the party also said on Monday that it would improve maternity leave and workplace protections, committing to allow couples to have more children. But these protections are practically absent for single mothers in China, who, despite the pressure for more children, still do not have access to benefits.
Births in China have fallen for four consecutive years, including in 2020, when the number of babies born fell to the lowest since the Mao era. The country’s total fertility rate – an estimate of the number of children born in a woman’s lifetime – now stands at 1.3, well below the replacement rate of 2.1, which raises the possibility of population decline over time.
Monday’s announcement still splits the difference between individual reproductive rights and government limits on women’s bodies. Prominent voices in China have called on the party to completely remove its restrictions on births. But Beijing, under Xi Jinping, the party leader who has pushed for greater control over the daily lives of the country’s 1.4 billion people, has resisted.
“Opening it up to three children is far from enough,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demographics 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 must be seen as a crisis for the survival of the Chinese nation, even beyond the pandemic and other environmental issues,” Huang added. “There should never have been a birth restriction policy in the first place. It is not therefore a question of whether it is too late.
The party made the announcement after a meeting of the Politburo, a top decision-making body, although it was not immediately clear when the change would take effect. Recognizing that increasing birth limits may not be enough, the party also pledged to step up support for families, although it did not provide details.
The party first imposed a “one-child” policy in 1980 to slow population growth and support the economic boom that was only just beginning. Officials often used brutal tactics in forcing women to have abortions or sterilization, and the policy quickly became a source of public discontent.
In 2013, as Chinese authorities began to understand the implications of the country’s aging population, the government allowed parents from one-child families to have two children of their own. Two years later, the limit was raised to two children for everyone.
The chorus of voices urging the party to do more has only grown in recent years. The central bank said in a clearly-worded article last month that the government could not afford to continue restricting procreation. Already, some local officials in some regions had tacitly allowed couples to have three children.
But more and more couples are now embracing the concept that one child is enough, a cultural shift that has lowered birth rates. 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 get any because children are too inconvenient and expensive,” said Li Shan, 26-year-old product manager at an internet company in Beijing. “I am impatient and afraid that I will not be able to educate the child well.
The party’s announcement was unlikely to change China’s demographic trends.
“Policymakers have probably realized that the people’s situation is relatively dire,” said He Yafu, a freelance demographer based in Zhanjiang, southern China. “But by simply opening up the policy to three children and not encouraging births as a whole, I don’t think there will be a significant increase in the fertility rate. A lot of people don’t want to have a second child, let alone a third child.
Still, the news was greeted with relief by some women who already had a third child but feared punishment for breaking the rules.
“My cell phone almost fell to the ground,” said Yolanda Ouyang, a 39-year-old employee of a state-owned enterprise in the Guangxi region who had hidden her third child for two years because she feared she would be put. at the door.
China’s tightening grip
- Xi warning: A century after the founding of the Communist Party, the Chinese leader declared that foreign powers “would break their heads and spill blood” if they tried to stop its rise.
- Behind the Hong Kong takeover: A year ago, the city’s freedoms were reduced at breakneck speed. But the crackdown lasted for years and many signals were missed.
- A year later in Hong Kong: Neighbors are invited to point out each other. Children are taught to look for traitors. The Communist Party is remaking the city.
- Charting China’s post-Covid path: Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, seeks to balance confidence and caution as his country progresses while other countries continue to fight the pandemic.
- A challenge for the global leadership of the United States: As President Biden predicts a struggle between democracies and their opponents, Beijing is eager to defend the other side.
- “Red tourism” flourishes: New and improved attractions dedicated to the history of the Communist Party, or a sanitized version of it, draw crowds ahead of the party’s centenary.
“I am so happy and so shocked,” Ms. Ouyang said. “Finally, my child can go out and play outdoors. “
The party’s announcement was quickly criticized on Weibo, a popular social media platform. “Don’t they know that most young people are already tired enough to try to feed themselves? One user wrote, pointing to a common complaint about the rising cost of living. Other users complained that increasing birth limits would do nothing to reduce the discrimination women face in the workplace when they have more children.
Acknowledging these complaints, the party pledged Monday to improve more child-friendly benefits, such as maternity leave, and to “protect the rights and legitimate interests of working women.”
The party also said it would increase funding to expand services to retirees across the country. In 2020, the number of people aged 60 and over in China stood at 264 million, or about 18.7% of the population. That figure is expected to reach more than 300 million people, or about a fifth of the population, by 2025, according to the government.
The reluctance of the party to give up its right to dictate reproductive rights shows the power of such policies as tools of social control. Even as the country struggled to raise the birth rate, authorities in the western Xinjiang region forced women from ethnic Muslim minorities, such as Uyghurs, to have fewer babies in an effort to curb their population growth.
A complete reversal of the rules could also be seen as a repudiation of a deeply unpopular policy the party has long championed.
“If a government turns around in the West today, it’s a little embarrassing,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor of social sciences and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “But in a country like China, where the same party has been in power for about 70 years, then it makes a statement about the policies that have been implemented. And that’s why I think any change that happens will be pretty gradual. “
For decades, Chinese restrictions on family planning have allowed authorities to impose fines on most couples with more than one child and forcing hundreds of millions of Chinese women to undergo invasive procedures.
Gao Bin, a 27-year-old lottery ticket seller in the eastern city of Qingdao, recalled how his mother had to flee to three different places just to escape family planning officials because she wanted to keep him. He said his mother still cries when she recounts those days.
“To be honest, when I saw the announcement of this policy, I was quite angry,” Gao said. “I think the government lacks a humane attitude when it comes to fertility.”
Claire Fu and Elsie Chen contributed research.