Simon Denyer, Washington Post, October 29, 2015
China said Thursday that it will abandon its controversial “one-child policy” and allow all couples to have two children, effectively ending the biggest population control experiment in history amid growing pressure from a rapidly aging population.
The move, which came after a meeting of the Communist Party leadership, reflected concerns about potential labor shortages and rising numbers of elderly people that would greatly strain the economy in the years ahead.
The communiqué from a plenary session of the party’s Central Committee did not say when the policy change will be implemented, only that the party had decided to “fully adopt the policy that one couple is allowed two children [and] actively take action on aging population.”
China’s unpopular one-child rule was introduced in 1980, and was brutally enforced through huge fines, forced sterilizations and abortions, experts say. It empowered and enriched a huge swath of officials, with bribes often paid to skirt the rules.
It also skewed China’s sex ratio as a result of the selective abortion of girls, who are much less favored in traditional Chinese culture.
Calls to abandon the policy had reached a crescendo in the past decade, but the Communist Party moved slowly, partly relaxing the rule in 2013 before Thursday’s announcement.
The nation’s fertility rate–1.4 children per woman–is far below that of the United States and many other nations in the developed world, leading to a rapidly graying society and increasing demands on the state such as social programs and health care for the elderly.
It also means a substantial decline in the supply of young labor to power the world’s No. 2 economy as it seeks to dethrone the United States.
The policy was introduced in delayed reaction to booming birth rates as China recovered from Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and the famine of 1958-62.
But by 1980, it was no longer needed, many experts argue. Birth rates in China already had declined sharply during the 1970s.
Despite the demographic pressure, the communique said China was “sticking to the basic policy of state family planning” and “population growth strategy.” In other words, it is not taking its hands off the rudder entirely: Under the new policy, couples will still be limited to two children.
The policy was eased in 2013 to allow couples to have a second child if either parent was an only child. Rural couples already could have a second child if their first child was a girl. Members of some ethnic minorities, including Tibetans, were exempt from the restrictions.
The policy shift two years ago, however, did not appear to lead to a big boost in birth rates, with economic pressures and the cultural norms around having one child meaning that many families decided to stay as they were.