Confronted By Aging Population China Allows Couples To Have 3 Children

May 31, 2021
Originally published on May 31, 2021 11:53 pm

BEIJING - China will now allow married couples to have up to three children as the country attempts to halt a declining birthrate.

The policy is a dramatic change for a country which, less than a decade ago, still performed forced abortions and sterilizations of women who had more than one child. The new three child limit raises the previous ceiling of two children. It is a recognition from the country's top leaders that China will need to undertake drastic measures to counter a rapidly aging society.

"Implementing the policy and its relevant supporting measures will help improve China's population structure, actively respond to the aging population, and preserve the country's human resource advantages," China's Politburo, a top Communist Party governing body, wrote in a statement published on China's state news agency Xinhua on Monday.

Only five years ago, China officially ended its One Child policy, a raft of restrictions that for more than three decades strictly limited couples to only one child. Those who had two or more children in violation of the policy were fined heavily. Pregnant women were sometimes effectively kidnapped by local family planning officials who cajoled, intimidated, or forced women to end the birth.

In 2016, that limit was raised to two children after years of relaxation to the One Child Policy. Since then, local governments have also extended mandatory maternity leave periods to up to four months. But rising childcare costs and greater participation of women in the workforce have meant fewer families are opting to have more children, even when they are allowed to.

China's latest census figures released this year show the country's birthrate has dropped to 1.3 live births per woman, far below the rate of 2.1 most demographers agree is needed to sustain a population at its current level.

Meanwhile, Chinese society is now aging faster than it can produce new workers, threatening to halt economic growth and bankrupt state pension funds. China's latest census shows the proportion of people between 15 and 59 in 2020 declined by about 7 percentage points from 2010, while that of people 60 or older rose by more than 5 percentage points.

Yet the country's ruling Communist Party has decided to retain an upper ceiling on family sizes, despite recommendations from China's central bank to let people have as many children as they want.

The news that the government was now allowing three-child families was initially unclear in China. Popular Chinese social media site Weibo disabled the ability to read the thousands of comments left under news items about the family planning policy change due to what they alleged was "abnormal content".

"As slow as our population growth may be, we still have 1.4 billion people, which is more than the Western countries combined," Chinese state media tabloid Global Times wrote in an editorial this week. "China remains young as a rising nation. This won't change in the long term."

Amy Cheng contributed research from Beijing.

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To China now, which less than a decade ago was still forcing women to get abortions if they had more than one child. Now it's reversing course. Today the country's ruling Communist Party announced married couples could have up to three children. NPR's Emily Feng explains why China is relaxing birth limits.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: For more than three decades, China's one-child policy tried to cap what demographers anticipated would be runaway population growth. That growth never came. In fact, China's 2020 census shows the number of working-age adults declining. Fertility rates are at historic lows. Women just aren't having enough babies to maintain China's current population, hence China's announcement today to, quote, "preserve the country's human resource advantages" by allowing three children. But why does China keep birth limits at all? Why not just let people have as many children as they want?

MEI FONG: Bureaucratic inertia.

FENG: That's Mei Fong, who wrote "One Child," a book on birth restrictions in China.

FONG: They had 30-plus year population planning in place. In order to enforce that, they have built up a huge bureaucratic infrastructure. To dismantle that in a hurry is just simply not possible.

FENG: That's why allowing three children is a major reversal of policies that, up until a decade ago, still allowed officials to hunt down millions of women and force them to abort their baby or publicly track a woman's menstrual cycle. In 2016 China allowed families to have two children. But up until last year, couples were still getting fined thousands of dollars for having three children, which suddenly is now encouraged.

FONG: That's the thing. I think about all these women now that I spoke to who had, you know, been forcibly sterilized or had forcible abortions. And I can only imagine the deep bitterness and sadness.

FENG: It's also not clear whether this sudden change in policy will encourage couples to have bigger families. Rising child care costs and growing workplace discrimination against new mothers means China's birthrate will likely stay low.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

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