Q&A: Here’s why China is abolishing its one-child policy

This photo taken Tuesday shows pupils exercising on the playground during a break at an elementary school in Jilin, in northeast China's Jilin province.

This photo taken Tuesday shows pupils exercising on the playground during a break at an elementary school in Jilin, in northeast China’s Jilin province.

(Stringer / AFP/Getty Images)

China will abandon its one-child policy after 35 years and allow all couples to have two children, authorities announced Thursday as they unveiled the outlines of the country’s next five-year economic plan.

The one-child policy was implemented in 1980 to control the country’s explosive population growth. China says the law has prevented 400 million births, but even so, China is the world’s most populous nation, with more than 1.3 billion people.

In recent decades, that massive population combined with rapid industrialization and urbanization have led to severe strains on natural resources, including water, and contributed significantly to problems such as air pollution.

So why would China want to encourage more families to have babies? Here’s a look at the situation:

What is the one-child policy?

Thirty-five years ago, as China was just beginning its era of reform and opening to the rest of the world, Communist Party leaders became concerned that overpopulation would stunt economic growth and overtax resources. It adopted regulations to limit the majority of families to having one child — though there were numerous exceptions. For example, minorities, fishermen and some handicapped people were allowed to have more than one child; local officials had substantial discretion to allow second births. Families who weren’t exempt from the policy had to pay fines if they had a second or third child — or face other punishments. Many who violated the rules were harassed, lost their jobs or even had their children taken from them. Many critics of the policy have called its implementation inhumane.

Didn’t China already loosen the policy?

More than a decade ago, some local governments began allowing couples who were both only children to have a second child. Then, in 2013, China decided to allow all couples to have a second child if either parent was a single child. The National Health and Family Planning Commission said China recorded 16.9 million births in 2014, up 470,000 from 2013, which showed the new policy was having some effect. But the number of couples wanting to have a second child has been lower than many demographers expected. By May 2015, only 1.45 million couples — out of 11 million eligible ones — had applied to have a second child. Like many couples in the West, a fair number of Chinese couples — particularly in urban areas — have decided that having a second child is too expensive or too much trouble.

“It is sensible for countries to have explicit policies on reproduction just as they do on carbon emissions and other phenomena that affect the population on a large scale. China’s one-child policy was a logical choice at the time, though perhaps crudely enforced. Without it, China might have faced catastrophe,” said Anna Smajdor, a reproduction and childbirth ethics expert at the University of East Anglia in England.

“However, increasing the child quota is unlikely to work in rebalancing China’s aging population because China, like everywhere else, is looking at a low birth rate, especially among affluent, well-educated women.”

Still, an unscientific survey of users on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, conducted Thursday night, showed 62% of 30,000 respondents saying they would like to have a second child.

Why is China concerned about the declining birthrate?

China’s population is still growing, but unless the birthrate increases — it’s now about 1.18 children for every couple — the number of Chinese is expected to peak between 2020 and 2030. (China’s birthrate is lower than the global average of 2.5 and the 1.7 average in developed countries; a rate of 2.1 children per couple is considered the “replacement” rate to keep the population steady.)

China’s working-age population — defined by the government as people between 16 and 59 — has dropped for three years in a row, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. It fell by 3.45 million in 2012, by 2.44 million in 2013 and 3.71 million in 2014. According to the United Nations, China’s pool of workers could shrink by 61 million by 2030.

Moreover, China’s cohort of workers is getting old. By 2050, 25% of China’s population will be over the age of 65, while the number of young people who can support the retiree set will have shrunk. China now has a 5-to-1 worker-to-retiree ratio; if the birthrate were to continue as is, the ratio would be only 1.6 to 1 by 2040, demographers predict.

Supporting retirees is one problem. Some economists also warn that a graying country likely means lower economic growth because retirees are not as voracious consumers as young people. Chinese leaders already are facing other downward pressures on economic growth as the country tries to move away from export-dependent factory jobs and heavy investment in infrastructure projects such as roads and airports.

Is allowing more births the only solution?

No. China could ease some of the economic strains of a declining working-age population by improving the average productivity of its workers, improving the efficiency of its markets, allowing in guest workers or immigrant workers, or raising the retirement age.

In a report this month, Beijing-based Cinda Securities cautioned that relaxing the one-child policy was not the catch-all solution to China’s economic strains. China should focus instead on improving the productivity of its laborers by boosting education, and improve efficiency by allowing markets to play a greater role in its economy, and improving the legal system.

Cinda also said the government should explore ways to give older people opportunities to work. China’s current retirement age is 55 for women and 60 for men. The government has proposed raising those limits, but only incrementally.

The firm warned that given China’s rapid economic development and rising standards of living, a loosening of restrictions might not be enough to prompt many more Chinese to have two children.

“Even if changes in government population policy could lead to increased birthrate and solve the ‘problem’ of the aging population, the country would face a new problem of a booming population,” the firm warned. “China already has a large population. … And more population growth will be a fatal trap for economic development because the country does not have enough resources.”

If China’s per-capita wealth reaches the level of, say, Italy or Greece, the firm added, “it would mean consuming a huge amount of resources. In attempting to produce more young people to solve the aging problem, we must think about what resources this added population would require. … Handling this is not easy to deal with.”

Tommy Yang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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