China announced on Monday that all married couples would be allowed to have three children, ending a two-child policy that had failed to increase the country’s declining birthrates and avert a demographic crisis.
The announcement by the ruling Communist Party represents an admission that the country’s reproduction restrictions, which are among the strictest in the world, have jeopardized the country’s future. The labor pool is shrinking and the population is graying, posing a threat to China’s industrial strategy, which it has used for decades to rise from poverty to become an economic powerhouse.
However, it is far from clear that further relaxation of the policy will be beneficial. People in China reacted coolly to the party’s earlier decision, made in 2016, to allow couples to have two children. To them, such measures do little to alleviate their concerns about the rising cost of education and caring for aging parents, which is exacerbated by a lack of day care and a pervasive culture of long work hours.
The announcement on Monday still distinguishes between individual reproductive rights and government restrictions on women’s bodies. Prominent Chinese voices have urged the party to abandon its restrictions entirely. But Beijing has resisted, led by Xi Jinping, the party leader who has pushed for greater control over the lives of the country’s 1.4 billion people.
The announcement came following a meeting of the Politburo, China’s top decision-making body, though it was not immediately clear when the change would take effect. Recognizing that raising the birth limit may not be enough, the party also pledged to increase support for families, though no specifics were provided.
China’s family planning restrictions date back to 1980, when the Communist Party imposed a “one-child” policy to slow population growth and boost the country’s economic boom, which was just getting started at the time. Officials frequently used brutal tactics to force women to have abortions or be sterilized, and the policy quickly became a source of public outrage.
As Chinese officials became more aware of the implications of the country’s aging population, the government permitted parents from one-child families to have two children of their own in 2013. Two years later, the limit for everyone was raised to two children.
However, more couples are now accepting the notion that one child is sufficient, a cultural shift that has lowered birth rates. Even after the latest announcement, some say they aren’t interested in children at all. China’s birth rate has fallen for four years in a row, including in 2020, when the number of babies born was the lowest since the Mao era. The total fertility rate in the country is now 1.3, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.
The announcement by the party was unlikely to change that trend. Nonetheless, some women who already had a third child but were afraid of being punished for breaking the rules were relieved by the news.
The announcement of the party was quickly met with criticism on Weibo, a popular social media platform. “Don’t they realize that most young people are already exhausted just trying to feed themselves?” wrote one user, referring to a common complaint about rising living costs. Other users complained that raising the birth limit would have no effect on the discrimination that women faced at work as their families grew larger.
In addition, the party stated that it would increase funding to expand services for the country’s retirees. In 2020, China’s population of people aged 60 and up was estimated to be 264 million, accounting for approximately 18.7 percent of the total population. According to the government, that figure is expected to rise to more than 300 million people, or roughly one-fifth of the population, by 2025.
The party’s reluctance to relinquish its right to dictate reproductive rights demonstrates the power of such policies as social control tools. Even as the country struggles to increase birth rates, authorities in the western region of Xinjiang have been forcing women of Muslim ethnic minorities, such as the Uyghurs, to have fewer children in an effort to limit their population growth.
A complete change in the rules could also be interpreted as a rejection of a deeply unpopular policy that the party has long defended. For decades, China’s family-planning restrictions empowered the authorities to impose fines on most couples who had more than one child and compel hundreds of millions of Chinese women to undergo invasive procedures.