China announces three-child limit in major policy shift

China has announced that couples will be permitted to have up to three children in a major policy shift from the existing two-child limit, after recent data showed a dramatic decline in births in the world’s most populous country.

“To actively respond to the ageing of the population … a couple can have three children,” state media Xinhua reported on Monday, citing a meeting of China’s elite politburo leadership committee hosted by President Xi Jinping.

China’s fertility rate stands at 1.3 – below the level needed to maintain a stable population. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there were officially 12 million babies born in 2020, 2.65 million fewer than were born in 2019, an 18% fall. Preliminary data released earlier this year, based on registered births, had indicated a year-on-year drop of 15%.

Vroeër vandeesmaand, China reported the slowest population growth since the early 1960s, despite scrapping its one-child policy in 2015 to encourage more births and stave off a looming demographic crisis.

A once-a-decade census showed that the overall population of China grew to 1.41 billion in the 10 years to 2020, up by 5.38%. The increase reflects an average annual rise of 0.53%, af van 0.57% reported from 2000 aan 2010.

For more than 35 jare, China enforced a controversial one-child policy initially imposed to halt a population explosion. Its replacement, a two-child limit, failed to result in a sustained surge in the number of births as the high cost of raising children in Chinese cities deterred many couples from starting families.

Op papier, under the current two-child policy, couples have to pay a “social support fine” for having a third child. Egter, some say the implementation of this policy varies in different parts of the country.

Monday’s announcement drew a heated discussion on China’s social media platform Weibo. Die hashtag #Here-comes-the-three-child-policy had reached 3bn views, with many questioning whether the policy is too little and too late.

“I myself am a product of the one-child policy. I already have to take care of my parents. Where would I find the energy to raise more than two kids?” one user posted on Weibo. “I am willing to have three children if you give me 5 million yuan (£554,350),” wrote another commenter.

Prof Wang Feng of University of California Irvine, who specialises in Asian demographics, said that China’s birth control policy should have already been abandoned. “It’s outdated. What China needs is not another state policy, but rather a better and fairer society.”

He Yafu, an independent demographer in Guangzhou, said that given the limited impact of the two-child policy, the announcement will hardly help reverse the current trend. “The relaxation may not achieve as much as the authorities would have anticipated. It’s too costly to raise a child these days, and housing is not cheap in China," hy het gesê.

But Prof Stuart Gietel-Basten, who directs the centre for ageing science at the Hong Kong university of science and technology, said the announcement was not unimportant.

“It removes a clear inconsistency in the narrative surrounding the concerns over low fertility with restrictions on births at the same time," hy het gesê. “It will also be an important step in further stamping out illegal actions on women’s bodies [eg sterilisation and abortion] sanctioned by some local officials.”

It is not only China that is facing such a demographic challenge. Across east Asia, authorities have, vir jare, been scrambling to persuade couples to have more babies. South Korea and Japan have both used stipends to increase incentives.

Before the announcement, authorities had been experimenting with the three-child policy in the north-eastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang. Tog, some Chinese experts said the result was less effective than previously thought. This has also led some to call for a complete abandonment of the family planning policy.

The policy change will come with “supportive measures, which will be conducive to improving our country’s population structure, fulfilling the country’s strategy of actively coping with an ageing population and maintaining the advantage, endowment of human resources”, Xinhua said.

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