China’s ruling Communist Party said on Monday that it would allow all married couples to have three children, ending a two-child policy that has failed to boost the country’s declining birthrates or address an impending demographic crisis.
The move reflected 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.
The party made the announcement after a meeting by the Politburo, a top decision-making body. It said the decision would “improve our country’s population structure and help implement a national strategy to actively respond to the aging population.”
China’s family planning restrictions date to 1980, when the party first imposed a “one-child” policy to slow population growth and bolster the economic boom that was then just beginning.
In 2013, as Chinese officials began to understand the implications of the country’s aging population, the government allowed parents who were from one-child families to have two children themselves. Two years later, the limit was raised to two children for everyone, effective Jan. 1, 2016.
Demographers in China have long lobbied for the government to abandon all birth restrictions, but Beijing has moved slowly despite signs that the two-child policy was not working. Economic pressures and an acceptance among many families that having one child is the norm have led to flagging birthrates, and experts do not expect significant changes from Monday’s announcement.
Births in China have fallen for four consecutive years, including in 2020, when the number of babies born dropped to the lowest since the Mao era. The country’s total fertility rate — an estimate of the number of children born over a woman’s lifetime — now stands at 1.3, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.
Still, the announcement took several experts by surprise.
“This was a bit sudden and earlier than I expected,” said He Yafu, an independent demographer based in the southern Chinese city of Zhanjiang. “The decision makers have probably realized that the population situation is relatively severe.”
China’s rapidly graying population has started to impose increasing pressures on the state. In Monday’s announcement, the party said it would increase funding to expand services for the country’s retirees.
The number of young workers that has powered the world’s factory floor is also declining. A three-child policy would help “maintain our country’s advantages in human resource endowments,” the Politburo said.
In 2020, the number of people age 60 and above in China stood at 264 million, accounting for about 18.7 percent of the population. That figure is set to grow to more than 300 million people, or about one-fifth of the population, by 2025, according to the government.
The party’s announcement on Monday is likely to revive longstanding complaints about the government’s invasive control over women’s bodies in China. On China’s popular social media platform, Weibo, users were quick to post remarks criticizing the move as ineffective.
“Don’t they know that most young people are already tired enough just trying to feed themselves?” wrote one user, pointing to a common lament about the rising costs of living.
The party, in describing the decision on Monday, acknowledged the need for broader changes that would make it easier for couples to have more children. It also pledged to improve maternity leave and “protect the legitimate rights and interests of women in employment.”
For decades, China’s family planning restrictions empowered the authorities to impose punishing fines on most couples who had more than one child and compel hundreds of millions of Chinese women to have abortions or undergo sterilization operations. Civil servants were fired for violating birth restrictions.