China on Monday said it would allow all married couples to have three children, up from the existing limit of two, as it further loosened decades of population controls that have left the country in a demographic crisis.
The policy, announced at a Politburo meeting chaired by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, was aimed at “maintaining national security and social stability” and keeping “our country’s advantages in human resource endowments,” the powerful decision-making body said, according to state news agency Xinhua.
Among demographers, central bank officials, entrepreneurs and more, calls for China to fully lift family-planning rules have gained momentum over the past year, as new data exposed the vulnerabilities in China’s growth model.
In May, the results of a once-in-a-decade census showed China’s population growth over the past decade was its slowest since the 1950s. China’s population was 1.41 billion in 2020, with average annual population growth over the past decade at just 0.53%. China’s fertility rate is one of the world’s lowest, at 1.3 births per woman.
Experts say that a quickly aging population and a shrinking labor force could derail economic growth in the world’s most populous country. Yet by expanding the limit on children to three, experts said China’s leaders had stopped short of completely lifting deeply unpopular family-planning restrictions in place since 1980, which were often brutally enforced through forced abortions, sterilizations and steep fines.
“The law should respect and protect the people’s reproductive rights and freedom, and let citizens decide for themselves whether to have children or not, and how many,” said Liu Ruishuang, deputy director of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Law at Peking University.
The change in policy, which some observers said arrived sooner than expected, reflects concern at the highest level. Xi presided personally over the meeting, where officials also said they would also gradually raise the country’s retirement age, which is currently 60 for men and 55 for women.
Without giving specifics, the 25-member Politburo on Monday said it would reduce the costs of education, improve maternity care and insurance and provide other support to families on housing and taxes. It also said it would “protect the legitimate rights and interests” of working women.
Population experts have long said that lifting restrictions alone will not improve the birthrate. In 2016, when China ended decades of the “one child policy” to allow all couples to have two children, the change did little to encourage couples, deterred by the increasingly high costs of raising a family in China’s highly competitive cities.
Others have said the government should change rules that bar same-sex couples and single women from reproductive assistance, such as freezing one’s eggs and accessing sperm banks.
“The three-child policy is a step forward, but the question is: If the two-child policy did not mean people had more children, will that happen under a three-child policy?” said Sun Xiaomei, a professor at China Women’s University.
China’s efforts to encourage its citizens to marry and reproduce has prompted fears officials will employ its traditionally heavy-handed approach to pushing people to have children. The Politburo’s announcement promised to “strengthen the education and guidance” of young married couples, as well as “control bad social customs.”
Online, where the policy change garnered more than 660 million views on Weibo, the news was met with cynicism and ridicule.
One user on the microblog wrote, “Whether you change the policy five children or eight children, housing prices are still the best sterilization tool.”
One blogger said, “What is this? Producing pigs?” Another wrote, “there’s nothing wrong with changing the policy, I just hope they don’t force it.”