China’s Communist Party’s announced Thursday that the country would lift the one-child policy, which for more than three decades has limited the number of children couples were allowed to have, amid fears of a shrinking labor force and rising elderly population.
The unpopular one-child policy was put into place in 1980, when the nation was impoverished and the birth rate was almost three children per woman. Critics, however, charge that the brutally enforced policy was unnecessary because the birth rate was naturally declining through the 1970s and would have leveled out on its own to a sustainable rate.
As a result of the policy, the country’s birth rate is now 1.4 children per woman, which is below the United States’ birth rate of 1.86 per woman. The nation’s population is aging. While those older than 60 make up about a seventh of the population right now, the United Nations estimates that by the early 2030s, one-quarter of China’s population will be age 60 or above.
Faced with these numbers, the government eased restrictions in 2013 by allowing couples to have two children if either of the parents was an only child. Few people, however, took advantage of these relaxed rules, according to population professionals. Peng Xizhe, a population professor at Fudan University, has said that there were other drivers of the decision to have only one child.
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“Couples chose not to have a second child because of economic pressure and insufficient social welfare,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post. “Cultural norms have also changed and it’s unclear how long it will take to shift the expectation of having just one child.”
There is widespread agreement among experts that the policy was a mistake. Wang Feng, a Chinese historian at University of California, Irvine, called it “a textbook case of bad science combined with bad policy” that was morally questionable.
“China for decades to come will have to live with the aftermath of this costly policy,” he told the Washington Post.
The decision by the Central Committee of the Communist Party still needs to be approved by the country’s parliament before becoming national policy. Even then, it might take years to change the country’s demographics. “The reform will slightly slow down China’s aging society but it won’t reverse it,” Peng told the Washington Post.