The ruling Chinese Communist Party has announced it will allow all couples to have up to three children, marking the end of the nation’s strict two-child policy.
The change was approved by President Xi Jinping in a Politburo meeting, according to state media outlet Xinhua, after a once-in-a-decade census showed that China’s population grew at its slowest pace in decades under the rule, putting pressure on Beijing to boost measures for couples to have more babies and avert a population decline.
According to the census, around 12 million babies were born last year in China – the lowest number of births recorded since the 1960s, and a significant decrease from the 18 million reported in 2016.
The New York Times’China correspondent, Sui-Lee Wee, wrote that the move is also reflective of “concerns that the rapidly rising number of older people in China could exacerbate a shortage of workers and strain the economy in the near future”.
Following its meeting, the Politburo – China’s top decision-making body – said the move 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”.
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New policy mocked on social media
The announcement was met with widespread ridicule on Chinese social media platform Weibo, tapping into a deep unease with long working hours, skyrocketing house prices and the rising burden to provide for ageing relatives that frames modern life.
“For Chinese millennials one couple must support four grandparents as well as three kids? Can the country give a hero’s award to each of them?” read one comment that gained over 3000 likes.
Others said the policy could only be taken up by those with money. “The poor don’t dare have kids, in two more generations there will only be rich people left,” another user commented.
A poll on Weibo shared by Xinhua asking readers their reaction to the news later appeared to have been deleted after over 25,000 responded that they would not consider having three children.
China’s gender balance has been skewed by decades of the one-child policy, and a traditional social preference for boys which prompted a generation of sex-selective abortions and abandoned baby girls.
And for a younger generation of women with changing priorities amid the unrelenting pressures of urban life in China, there remains a widespread aversion to having children.
“I don’t want to have even a single child,” a 27-year-old single woman from Zhejiang province who gave her name only as Wendy told AFP.
“Nobody around me wants to have kids.” Most experts agree that the policy alone will not reverse China’s declining fertility, though it sends a symbolic message after decades of the one-child limit that was often brutally enforced by forced abortions and sterilisations.
“Most families have a preference for few children now – akin to the rest of Northeast Asia,” said Lauren Johnston, a China economics and demography researcher at SOAS University of London.
“By the time of the next census will there be many third children? Probably few.” A third of Chinese are forecast to be elderly by 2050, heaping huge pressure on the state to provide pensions and healthcare.
The “one-child” policy was first imposed in the 1980s as a way of slowing population growth and bolstering an economic boom that was then just beginning.
But by 2013, Chinese officials had begun to understand the implications of the nation’s ageing population and updated the policy to allow parents from one-child families to have as many as two children themselves.
From January 1, 2016, the limit was raised to two children for everyone.
“While the second-child policy had a positive impact on the birthrate, it proved short-term in nature,” principal economist from The Economist Intelligence Unit, Ms Yue Su, told the BBC.
Speaking to The Times, several experts said that while births in China have fallen for four consecutive years, this latest announcement still took them by surprise.
“This was a bit sudden and earlier than I expected,” independent demographer, He Yafu, told the publication.
“The decision makers have probably realised that the population situation is relatively severe.”
The announcement drew a chilly response on Chinese social media, though, with many people posting in response to the news that they couldn’t afford to even have one child.
“I am willing to have three children if you give me 5 million yuan ($1.02 million),” one person wrote on popular platform Weibo.
“Don’t they know that most young people are already tired enough just trying to feed themselves?” wrote another, pointing to a common sentiment about the rising costs of living.