Third time’s a charm as China relaxes birth limits

Married couples may have up to three children, Beijing announced, in a major shift from the existing limit of two after recent data showed a dramatic decline in births in the world’s most populous country.

Beijing scrapped its decades-old one-child policy in 2016, replacing it with a two-child limit to try and stave off risks to its economy from a rapidly aging population.

But that failed to result in a sustained surge in births given the high cost of raising children in mainland cities, a challenge that persists to this day.

The policy change will come with “supportive measures, which will be conducive to improving our country’s population structure, fulfilling the country’s strategy of actively coping with an aging population,” Xinhua News Agency said following a politburo meeting chaired by President Xi Jinping.

Among those measures, China will lower educational costs for families, step up tax and housing support, guarantee the legal interests of working women and clamp down on “sky-high” dowries, it said, without giving specifics.

It would also look to educate young people “on marriage and love.”

The politburo also said yesterday that it would phase in delays in retirement ages, without giving further details.

China had a fertility rate of just 1.3 children per woman in 2020, data showed, on par with aging societies like Japan and Italy and far short of the roughly 2.1 needed for replacement level.

A study published earlier this year by academics from Hangzhou University found that the two-child policy encouraged wealthier couples who already had a child and were “less sensitive to child-rearing costs,” while driving up the costs of child care and education and discouraging first-time parents.

“People are held back not by the two-children limit, but by the incredibly high costs of raising children in today’s China. Housing, extracurricular activities, food, trips, and everything else add up quickly,” Yifei Li, a sociologist at New York University Shanghai, said.

“Raising the limit itself is unlikely to tilt anyone’s calculus in a meaningful way, in my view.”

In a poll on Weibo asking #AreYouReady for the three-child policy, about 29,000 of 31,000 respondents said they would “never think of it.”

One posted: “I am willing to have three children if you give me 5 million yuan [HK$6.1 billion].” The poll was later removed.

Early this month, a once-in-a-decade census showed that the population grew at its slowest rate during the last decade since the 1950s, to 1.41 billion, fueling concerns that China would grow old before it gets wealthy as well as criticism that it had waited too long to address declining births.

“This is without a doubt a step in the right direction, but still it’s a bit timid,” Shuang Ding, chief economist at Standard Chartered in Hong Kong, said.

“A fully liberalized birth policy should have been implemented at least five years ago, but it’s too late now, although its better late than never.”

Fines of 130,000 yuan were still being imposed on people for having a third child as of late last year, according to a notice in Weihei city.

China’s gender balance has been skewed by decades of the one-child policy and a traditional social preference for boys that prompted a generation of sex-selective abortions and abandoned baby girls.

And for a younger generation of women with changing priorities amid the unrelenting pressures of urban life in China, there remains a widespread aversion to having children.

“I don’t want to have even a single child,” a 27-year-old single woman from Zhejiang said. “Nobody around me wants to have kids.”

A third of Chinese are forecast to be elderly by 2050, heaping huge pressure on the state to provide pensions and healthcare.

Ye Liu, lecturer in international development at King’s College London, said the new policy is “unlikely to incentivize birth rates dramatically.”

“The government shifts the responsibility of aging population to individual families without concrete financial and policy commitments.”


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