China relaxes its one-child policy

China is to allow millions of families to have two children, in the most significant liberalisation of the country’s strict one-child policy in three decades.

Mothers play with their only children at a shopping centres creche in Beijing. Parents have welcomed the easing of restrictions. Picture: AP

Couples in which one parent is an only child will now be able to have a second child, one of the highlights of a sweeping series of reforms announced after the ruling Communist Party ended a meeting that mapped out policy for the next decade. It comes eight months after Xi Jinping took over as president.

The plan was envisaged by the government about five years ago as officials worried that the strict controls were undermining economic growth and contributing to a rapidly ageing population the country had no hope of supporting financially.

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A growing number of scholars had long urged the government to reform the policy, introduced in the late 1970s to stop population growth spiralling out of control but now regarded by many experts as outdated and harmful to the economy.

The easing of the controls will not have a substantial demographic impact in the world’s most populous nation, but it could pave the way for the abolition of the policy.

“The demographic significance is minimal but the political significance is substantial,” Wang Feng, a sociology professor and demographics expert at Fudan University, said.

“This is one of the most urgent policy changes that we’ve been awaiting for years. What this will mean is a very speedy abolishment of the one-child policy.”

In the 1980s, the government allowed rural families with a girl to have two children. “Since the 80s, there’s been nothing as clear as this,” Prof Wang said.

Demographer Wang Guangzhou, from government think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, estimated the new policy would affect 30 million women of child-bearing age, in a country with nearly 1.4 billion people.

Although it is known internationally as the one-child policy, China’s family planning rules are more complicated. Currently, urban couples are permitted a second child if both parents do not have siblings and rural couples can have two children if their first-born is a girl.

There are numerous other exceptions, including looser rules for ethnic minorities. Any couple violating the policy has to pay a large fine.

The one-child policy covers 63 per cent of the population and Beijing says it has averted 400 million births since 1980.

Many analysts say the one-child policy has shrunk China’s labour pool, hurting economic growth. For the first time in decades, the working-age population fell in 2012, and China could be the first country in the world to get old before it gets rich.

“It’s not a huge reform,” said Liang Zhongtang, a demographer from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “There have been small adjustments all along.

“I am just worried that they will make no further adjustments for a very long time.”

Tian Xueyuan, a retired family planning scholar who helped draft the original policy, said the rules were only meant to last about 25 years. “They could have implemented this policy several years ago,” he said.

Numerous studies have shown the detrimental effects of the policy. China’s labour force of 930 million is projected to start declining in 2025 at a rate of about 10m a year. Meanwhile, its elderly population will hit 360m by 2030, from about 200m today.

A skewed gender ratio is another consequence. Like most Asian nations, China has a traditional bias for sons. Many families abort female foetuses or abandon baby girls to ensure their only child is a son.

Still, the adjustment is likely to be popular.

Zhang Yuanyuan, who has a one-year-old son, said she had already decided before the new policy to have one more child and was willing to pay the fine. “We are very, very happy about this new policy,” she said.