This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on Monday unveiled new plans to boost flagging birth rates and reverse population aging, raising the official limit on the number of children per couple from two to three.
The move came five years after the CCP scrapped a historic policy limiting most couples to just one child, which gave rise to decades of human rights abuses, including forced late-term abortions and sterilizations, as well as widespread monitoring of women’s fertility by officials.
The new policy was announced as CCP general secretary Xi Jinping chaired a meeting of the Politburo geared towards addressing the aging of the Chinese population.
“China will support couples that wish to have a third child,” state news agency Xinhua reported.
The Politburo concluded that “education and guidance should be provided to promote marriage and family values among marriage-age young people,” it said, adding that tax and housing incentives would also be in the pipeline for couples wanting to have children.
Among the support measures planned by the government include improvements to prenatal and postnatal care, a universal childcare service, and reduced education costs for families.
China’s fertility rate stood at around 1.3 children per woman in 2020, compared with the 2.1 children per woman needed for the population to replace itself.
Raising kids in China is a costly business, with parents stretched to find money for even one child’s education. While state-run schools don’t charge tuition until the 10th year of compulsory education, they increasingly demand nominal payments of various kinds, as well as payments for food and extracurricular activities.
There are signs that the people who do most of the mental, physical and emotional work of child-bearing and raising may not readily step up to solve the government’s population problems, however.
In a poll posted to the official Xinhua news agency account on the Weibo social media platform, 29,000 out of 31,000 respondents said they wouldn’t consider having more children.
The poll was later removed, Reuters reported.
Zhang Jianping, a rights activist from the eastern province of Jiangsu, said government interference in people’s private lives was never a good idea.
“It was wrong to impose curbs on births in the past, and it equally wrong to encourage more births today,” Zhang told RFA. “When an economy develops to a certain level, a population will naturally start to shrink.”
“Birth rates are falling in other places, including Taiwan and Canada, but they aren’t intervening,” Zhang said. “Actually, some developed countries don’t need to intervene to achieve rising birth rates, because they offer free medical care and education.”
“So we are just piling one error on top of another.”
Shanghai-based retired professor Gu Guoping said that while couples — single people aren’t allowed to have children — may be able to afford to have a child, they often can’t also afford to raise that child.
“It’s getting too expensive to raise just one kid now, let alone two or even three,” Gu said. “Ordinary people don’t make enough.”
Retirement age extension
Gu said that people were far more willing to have kids back in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was far less income disparity between families.
“There weren’t such big differences in income [back then],” he said. “Who is going to have a second or third kid now, even if you say they can?”
The new childbirth policy comes in tandem with plans to delay retirement for the working-age population, Xinhua reported, with people stopping work at 65 rather than at 60.
The move comes amid growing concerns about how a shrinking working-age population will fund the pensions of a growing number of older people.
Reactions to the policy on the social media platform Weibo were mixed.
“Have children if you want, don’t if you don’t: it’s your business,” user @wxw2021 commented on a news story about the policy announcement, while @Xiaoche_Xiaowu said: “Could you find me a spouse first?”
@Xinxing1007 wanted to know: “Are they thinking about raising salaries?” while @Three-year-old_Wo wanted to know: “Will there be any subsidies?”
@Taiyangda_3168 said the policy had “come at the right time,” while @Miya36510 commented that “Housing prices and education policies need to keep in step” with the new rules.