THE THREE CHILD policy is now official. On August 20, the National People’s Congress formally passed revisions to the law that will let couples have up to three children.
The aim, self-evidently, is to raise China’s birth rate. The results of the 2020 National Census reveal that China’s total fertility rate has fallen to an all-time low of 1.3 — well below the replacement level of 2.1.
Five years ago, the one-child limit was replaced by two, acknowledging the adverse impact of the strict controls on reproduction introduced in 1980, when the worry was the prospect of too many mouths to feed. Now, the concern is too few youngsters to pay for the pensions and healthcare of the elderly.
The unintended demographic consequence of the one-child policy was to leave China with an ageing population and shrinking workforce much sooner than other countries at this stage of economic development.
There was also a huge personal and social cost in the suppression, often forced, of an estimated 400 million births over the 35-years of the one-child policy.
Yet legal permission is far from the only factor in couples’ decisions to increase the size of their family. Adequate and affordable housing, the cost and availability of education and social welfare provisions, particularly childcare, also matter. Without extensive reforms in those three areas, this latest change is unlikely to reverse the downward trend in births, at least in urban areas.
Since the introduction of the two-child policy, as few as 5-6% of couples in large cities have opted to have a second child. A pair of recent surveys by Xinhua and Weibo showed only 3-5% of respondents were ready to have another child.
The countryside, where there is still a preference for sons and the one-child policy was not enforced for couples whose first child was a girl, may prove to be different.
The other factor weighing on the birth rate is the infertility rate, which rose to 18% in 2020 from 12% in 2007 among couples of childbearing age. While the absolute level is not out of line with other upper-middle-income countries, the sharp rise is, and its reasons are not well understood.