The ruling Communist Party’s announcement is an admission that its restrictions on reproduction, the most severe in the world, have jeopardized the country’s future. The workforce is shrinking and the population is turning gray, jeopardizing the industrial strategy China has used for decades to lift itself out of poverty and become an economic powerhouse.
But it is far from clear whether further policy easing will pay off. People in China reacted coldly to the party’s earlier move in 2016 by allowing couples to have two children. In their view, such measures do little to allay their concerns about the rising costs of education and support for aging parents, exacerbated by the lack of day care and the ubiquitous culture of long working hours.
In response to these concerns, the party also indicated on Monday that the situation will improve. maternity leave and workplace protection, pledging to help couples have more children. But this protection is practically absent for single mothers in China, who, despite striving to increase the number of children, still lack access to benefits.
The birth rate in China has declined for four consecutive years, including in 2020. when the number of babies born fell to the lowest level since Mao. The country’s total fertility rate – an estimate of the number of children born throughout a woman’s life – is currently 1.3, well below the replacement rate of 2.1, which increases the likelihood of population decline over time.
Monday’s announcement still divides the difference between individual reproductive rights and government restrictions on the female body. Prominent voices in China have called on the party to completely lift restrictions on childbirth. But Beijing, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the party leader who pushed for greater control over the daily lives of the country’s 1.4 billion people, has resisted.
“Opening it to three children is far from enough,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert at the Beijing Center for China and Globalization Research Center. “This should be completely liberalized and childbirth should be encouraged in every possible way.”
“This should be seen as a crisis for the survival of the Chinese nation, even if we disregard the pandemic and other environmental problems,” added Mr. Huang. “Firstly, there should never have been a policy of restricting the birth rate. So the question is not whether it’s too late. ”
The party made the announcement after a meeting with the Politburo, the highest governing body, although it was not immediately clear when the change would take effect. While acknowledging that raising the birth limit may not be enough, the party also promised to increase support for families, but did not provide details.
The party first introduced the one-child policy in 1980 to slow population growth and support the economic boom that was just beginning. Officials often used brutal tactics to force women to have abortions or sterilize, and these policies soon became a source of public discontent.
In 2013, as Chinese officials began to understand the consequences of the country’s aging population, the government allowed parents of single children to have two children. Two years later, the limit was increased to two children each.
The chorus of voices urging the party to do more has only grown in recent years. The central bank said in a sharply worded document last month that the government cannot afford to continue to restrict childbearing. Some local officials in some areas have already been silently letting couples have three children.
But now more and more couples share the idea that one child is enough – a cultural shift that has led to a decline in fertility. And some say they are not interested in children at all, even after the last announcement.
“No matter how many babies they open it to, I won’t have a child because babies are too troublesome and expensive,” said Li Shan, a 26-year-old product manager for an internet company in Beijing. “I am impatient and worried that I will not be able to give my child a good education.”
The party’s announcement is unlikely to change China’s demographic trends.
“Decision makers have probably realized that the population situation is relatively dire,” said He Yafu, an independent demographer based in the southern Chinese city of Zhanjiang. “But just by opening up politics for three children and not encouraging birth in general, I don’t think there will be a significant increase in fertility. Many people do not want to have a second child, let alone a third. “
However, the news was greeted with relief by some women who already had their third child but feared punishment for breaking the rules.
“My cell phone nearly fell to the ground,” said Yolanda Ouyang, a 39-year-old employee of a state-owned enterprise in the Guangxi area who hid her third child for two years for fear of being fired.
“I am so happy and so shocked,” Ms. Ouyang said. “Finally, my child can go outside and play outdoors.”
The party’s announcement was quickly met with criticism on the popular social networking site Weibo. “Don’t they know that most young people are already tired enough just trying to feed themselves?” wrote one user pointing out common complaints about the rising cost of living. Other users complained that raising the fertility limit would not help curb the discrimination women face at work when they have more children.
In recognition of these complaints, the party pledged on Monday to increase benefits for children, such as maternity leave, and to “protect the legitimate rights and interests of women in employment.”
The party also said it would increase funding to expand services for the country’s retirees. In 2020, the number of people aged 60 and over in China was 264 million, accounting for about 18.7 percent of the population. According to the government, by 2025 this figure will grow to more than 300 million people, or about one fifth of the population.
The party’s reluctance to relinquish its right to dictate reproductive rights points to the strength of such policies as an instrument of social control. Although the country struggled to raise the birth rate, the authorities in the western region of Xinjiang continued to act. compulsion women from Muslim ethnic minorities, such as the Uyghurs, must have fewer children in order to contain their population growth.
A complete rejection of the rules can also be seen as a rejection of deeply unpopular policies that the party has long defended.
“If the government in the West is making a 180-degree turn today, it’s a little awkward,” said Stuart Gitel-Basten, professor of social sciences and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “But in a country like China, where the same party has ruled for 70 years or so, then it makes a policy statement. That’s why I think any changes will be pretty gradual. “
For decades, Chinese restrictions on family planning have given authorities the power to impose fines on most couples with more than one child and forced hundreds of millions of Chinese women to undergo invasive procedures.
Gao Bin, a 27-year-old lottery ticket salesman in the eastern city of Qingdao, recalled how his mother she had to flee to three different places to avoid the family planning officials because she wanted to leave him. He said that his mother still cries when she remembers those days.
“To be honest, when I saw the announcement of this policy, I was very angry,” said Mr. Gao. “I think the government lacks a humane approach to the issue of fertility.”
Claire Fu as well as Elsie Chen contributed to the research.