China has finally scrapped its one-child policy, allowing all couples to have two children for the first time since draconian family planning rules were introduced more than three decades ago.
The announcement followed a four-day Communist party summit in Beijing where China’s top leaders debated financial reforms and how to maintain growth at a time of heightened concerns about the economy.
China will “fully implement a policy of allowing each couple to have two children as an active response to an ageing population”, the party said in a statement published by Xinhua, the official news agency. “The change of policy is intended to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population,.”
Some celebrated the move as a positive step towards greater personal freedom in China. But human rights activists and critics said the loosening – which means the Communist party continues to control the size of Chinese families – did not go far enough.
“The state has no business regulating how many children people have,” said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based activist for Amnesty International.
“If China is serious about respecting human rights, the government should immediately end such invasive and punitive controls over people’s decisions to plan families and have children.”
For months there has been speculation that Beijing was preparing to abandon the divisive family planning rule, which was introduced in 1980 because of fears of a population boom.
Demographers in and outside China have long warned that its low fertility rate – which experts say lies somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 children a woman – was driving the country towards a demographic crisis.
Since 2013, there has been a gradual relaxation of China’s family planning laws that already allowed minority ethnic families and rural couples whose firstborn was a girl to have more than one child.
Thursday’s announcement that all couples would be allowed two children caught many experts by surprise.
“I’m shaking to be honest,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, an University of Oxford demographer who has argued for the end of the one-child policy. “It’s one of those things that you have been working on and saying for years and recommending they should do something and it finally happened. It’s just a bit of a shock.”
The Communist party credits the policy with preventing 400m births, thus contributing to China’s dramatic economic takeoff since the 1980s.
But the human toll has been immense, with forced sterilisations, infanticide and sex-selective abortions that have caused a dramatic gender imbalance that means millions of men will never find female partners.
“The gender imbalance is going to be a very major problem,” warned Steve Tsang, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham. “We are talking about between 20 million and 30 million young men who are not going to be able to find a wife. That creates social problems and that creates a huge number of people who are frustrated.”
History showed that countries with a very large number of unmarried men of military age were more likely to pursue aggressive, militarist foreign policy initiatives, Tsang said.
In one of the most shocking recent cases of human rights abuses related to the once-child policy, a woman who was seven months pregnant was abducted by family planning officials in Shaanxi province in 2012 and forced to have an abortion.
Opponents say the policy has created a demographic “timebomb”, with China’s 1.3 billion-strong population ageing rapidly, and the country’s labour pool shrinking. The UN estimates that by 2050 China will have about 440 millionpeople over 60. The working-age population – those between 15 and 59 – fell by 3.71 million last year, a trend that is expected to continue.
There were no immediate details on how or when China’s new “two-child policy” would be implemented. But Gietel-Basten said the policy change was good news for both China’s people and its leaders, who stood to gain from ending a highly unpopular rule.
“From a political, pragmatic perspective, loosening the policy is good for the party but also it is a good thing for individual couples who want to have that second child. It is a kind of win-win for everybody,” he said.
“Millions of ordinary Chinese couples will be allowed to have a second child if they want to – this is clearly a very positive thing.”
Experts said the relaxation of family planning rules is unlikely to have a lasting demographic impact, particularly in urban areas where couples were now reluctant to have two children because of the high cost.
“Just because the government says you can have another child, it doesn’t mean the people will immediately follow,” said Liang Zhongtang, a demographer at the Shanghai Academy of Social Science.
Gietel-Basten said: “In the short term, probably there will be a little baby boom particularly in some of the poorer provinces where the rules have been very strict, like in Sichuan or in parts of the south. But in the long term I don’t think it’s going to make an enormous amount of difference.”
Dai Qing, a Chinese writer who has publicly called for all family planning rules to be scrapped, said the announcement was a positive step.
“It shows that the authorities have understood the changes in the total population and the demographic structure and started to address them,” she said.
But Dai said questions remained, particularly about how Beijing would enforce its new two-child policy.
“Even if people are allowed to have two children, what if they want to have three children or more? What if unmarried women want to have their own children? At the end of the day, it’s about women’s reproductive rights and freedoms.”
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