China will ease family planning restrictions to allow all couples to have two children, after decades of the strict and controversial one-child policy left it with an ageing population and shrinking workforce.

The move is a major liberalisation of the country’s family planning restrictions, already eased in late 2013 when Beijing said it would allow more families to have two children when the parents met certain conditions.

Key points

  • China ends its one-child policy after 35 years
  • Critics say it’s too late to undo the socio-economic damage of the policy
  • China’s fifth plenum leaders meet to discuss getting the economy back on track

The announcement was made at the close of a key party meeting in Beijing to chart the course of the world’s second largest economy over the next five years.

The historic change was “intended to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population”, state news agency Xinhua said.

The one-child policy, which came into effect in 1980, restricted most couples to only a single offspring and for years authorities argued that it was a key contributor to China’s economic boom.

It was enforced by a dedicated national commission with a system of fines for violators and often forced abortions, leading to heartrending tales of loss for would-be parents.

What is the one-child policy?

  • Majority of couples allowed only one child
  • Policy developed in face of food shortages and high birthrates
  • Strictly enforces with fines, inspections and even forced abortions

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But China’s population – the world’s largest at 1.37 billion – is now ageing rapidly, gender imbalances are severe, and its workforce is shrinking.

Human rights organisations welcomed the change to the deeply unpopular policy, but expressed reservations about remaining controls.

“As long as the quotas and system of surveillance remains, women still do not enjoy reproductive rights,” Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch told AFP, adding that change in policy was for “primarily economic reasons”.

Wang Feng, a leading expert on demographic and social change in China, called the change an “historic event” that would change the world but said the challenges of China’s aging society would remain.

“It’s an event that we have been waiting for for a generation, but it is one we have had to wait much too long for,” Mr Wang said.

“It won’t have any impact on the issue of the aging society, but it will change the character of many young families.”

Too little, too late?

The one child policy has been credited with helping to slow China’s population growth, although not by as much as originally hoped.

Analysis from correspondent Bill Birtles

China’s decision to end the one-child policy was not a surprise.

The Communist Party has been making it clear for the past few years they were moving towards this point.

I think the reaction will be very positive here.

The China government said it was doing this final relaxation of the policy to try to address demographic problems.

There is a huge age imbalance here in China. Some predictions say by the year 2030, the workforce population will decline by 9 per cent.

Even though this policy now is being relaxed and it will allow couples to have more children, most experts say it will not do much to stem the overall trend of China’s ageing society.

Speaking to some fairly young couples here in Beijing, they said even if they are allowed to have two children, they would not necessarily want to.

There are huge financial strains on families here.

If you look at the gender imbalance problem, by the year 2020, there is going to be an estimated 24 million bachelors in China who are unable to find a spouse.

So this gives you an idea of the extent of the problem.

But it also has been instrumental in a widening of the gender ratio, with a traditional preference for boys, particularly in rural areas, leading to a surplus of bachelors that will reach more than 20 million by 2020.

Under the 2013 reform, couples in which one parent is an only child were allowed to have a second child.

Critics said the relaxation of rules was too little, too late to redress substantial negative effects of the one-child policy on the economy and society.

Many couples who were allowed another child under the 2013 rules decided not to, especially in the cities, citing the cost of bringing up children in an increasingly expensive country.

Those views were echoed by users of Chinese social media, who met Thursday’s announcement with a collective shrug.

A second child, many commenters noted, would only add to the already intense social and financial pressures attached to reproduction.

“I will have four parents to take care of, along with two children,” one commenter noted.

“This is too great a responsibility”.

Leaders make roadmap for China’s future

The Communist leadership met in Beijing to discuss ways to put the country’s stuttering economy back on a smooth growth path as it struggles with structural inefficiencies and social policies left over from an era before it embraced market reforms.

Known as the fifth plenum, the conclave discussed the next Five-Year Plan for China — the 13th since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949.

Over four days of meetings the 205 members of the Central Committee, plus around 170 alternates, examined the specifics of the plan, which was largely worked out through a process of national consultations before the leaders even set foot in the capital.

The country’s rubber-stamp legislature will officially approve the resulting document next year.

The world’s most populous country has enjoyed a decades-long boom since the ruling party embraced market economics and opened up to the rest of the world from the late 1970s.

The process has transformed the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people and propelled the country to global prominence.

But growth has been slowing for several years, and analysts say the party needs to embrace further liberalisation to avoid falling into the stagnation of the “middle income trap”, when developing countries fail to fulfil their full potential.

The meeting reiterated the Communist Party’s goal to double 2010 GDP by 2020, as part of its aim to achieve a “moderately prosperous society” by the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding.

AFP/Reuters Updated


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