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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.