On May 31, 2021, China’s Communist Party Politburo meeting, chaired by President Xi Jinping, announced it will allow each couple in the country to have up to three children in a marked departure from its previous two-child limit.
A statement released after the meeting said major steps were needed to address the deepening problem of the ageing population.
“Birth policies will be further improved. A policy that allows a couple to have three children will be introduced with supporting measures,” it said.
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“This will improve the population structure of China.”
According to the national census conducted at the end of 2020, China’s overall population rose to 1.412 billion in 2020, from 1.4 billion a year earlier.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said Chinese mothers gave birth to 12 million babies in 2020, down from 14.65 million in 2019, marking an 18 per cent decline. This represented the fourth consecutive drop in the annual birth rate.
China’s fertility rate was 1.3 children per woman – below the replacement level of 2.1 needed for a stable population.
The NBS added that the average number of children that a Chinese woman said they were willing to have last year was 1.8.
The annual growth rate was 0.53 per cent for the period from 2010 to 2020, the slowest of any decade since China’s first census in 1953. It was down by 0.04 percentage points compared with the average growth rate of 0.57 per cent from 2000 to 2010, according to the NBS.
Before the release of the census data, four researchers from China’s central bank had already called for Beijing to immediately liberalise its birth policies or face a scenario in which it has a lower share of workers and higher burden of elderly care than the United States by 2050.
An online survey conducted soon after the change was announced suggested it will be a hard sell: 90 per cent of respondents said they “would not consider” having three children.
State News Agency Xinhua polled 31,000 people, finding just 1,443 of them were “ready” to have a third child. It was “on the agenda” for 213 respondents, while 828 were “hesitant”. The poll results, though, disappeared not long after they were posted.
A report by demographers at Renmin University of China backed up the sentiment as they estimated that the policy would lead to an annual increase of 200,000 to 300,000 births in the next five years – a slight increase from the rate of 12 million births last year.
Hu Xingdou, an independent political economist in Beijing, said young Chinese were unlikely to want to have bigger families.
“For China’s new ‘lying flat’ generation, the three-child policy may have little appeal, but for others, it may have some traction,” Hu said.
“The government should work hard to relieve the burden of education, of housing among other things to improve people’s willingness [to have more children].”
China’s one-child policy started in 1980 and was strictly enforced by the National Health and Family Planning Commission, with punishments including fines for violators and often forced abortions.
It restricted most couples to only a single offspring, and for years authorities argued it was a key factor in supporting the country’s economic boom.
Civil servants and employees of government-affiliated organisations, including universities, risked losing their jobs if they were found to have had more than one child.
If parents did not pay a fine, second children could not be registered in the national household system, or hukou, meaning they did not exist legally and so would not have access to social services like health care and education.
National Health and Family Planning Commission spokesman Mao Qunan said the agency’s work had reduced the number of births in China over the years by “400 million”.
The one-child policy was generally accepted to mean one birth per family, so if women gave birth to two or more children at the same time, they would not be penalised.
Various reports in Chinese and international media suggested that this loophole led mothers to take fertility drugs to have multiple births.
China officially ended its one-child policy on January 1, 2016, with the signing into law of a bill allowing all married couples to have a second child as it attempted to cope with an ageing population and shrinking workforce.
In March 2018, the new National Health Commission also took over responsibility for population management from the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
At the time, officials said the phrase “family planning” would disappear from the ministerial lexicon as China grappled with its shrinking labour pool and rapidly ageing population.
A lack of affordable childcare, rising living costs and gruelling work hours has been cited as some of the reasons making many young Chinese think twice about having any children, let alone more than one.
In its most recent estimate in November 2020, the government said it expected China’s population to peak in 2027.
But He Yafu, an independent expert on China’s demographics, expects the population to start to fall in 2022 as the number of births drops to nearly 10 million and the number of deaths surpasses 10 million.
There had already been signs that China’s national birth rate and population were on the verge of falling, with some experts warning of grave consequences.
Beijing, which has a population of around 21 million, suffered a 24.3 per cent decline in its birth rate in 2020 compared with a year earlier, according to official data.
China also saw 10.035 million new registered births in the household registration system in 2020, down from 11.79 million in 2019, although this figure does not include the entire population.
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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