On Monday, May 31, after a meeting of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, the decision to raise the limit of children per family to three was announced via an official statement. This is in response to the Seventh National Population Census conducted in late 2020, which results came out in early May. It highlights the demographic crisis that China is experiencing, despite the changes it has been making over the years to its birth control policies.
During the Mao Zedong leadership of the country, the birth rate fell from 37 per thousand to 20 per thousand. Until the 1960’s the government encouraged families to have as many children as possible. Mao believed that population growth meant empowerment of the nation because of the increasing of the workforce, translated into the development of the industries.
China is the country with the toughest birth rate measures in the world. After the population grew from 540 million in the late 1950s to 940 million people in 1976 (the year of the death of Mao Zedong), in 1970 the government began a series of limitations about the number of children per family and the age required to marry. In 1980, the measure of one child per family was imposed to control overpopulation in the country. They were first encouraged in some areas by Deng Xiaoping. To this end, brutal methods of repression such as abortion and forced sterilization were applied. If a family was found to have more than one child, as required by law, fines were imposed, and the parents were fired from their jobs. The government presumes around 400 million births were prevented thanks to this restriction.
By 2000, population growth was zero. However, in the long term, this measure was counterproductive, so, for the year 2016, this policy was changed to make way for one of a maximum of two children to boost population growth again. This was made through gradual changes, because initially if both partners were only-children, they could have a maximum of two children; then the condition became only one of the spouses, to finally be a universal policy.
Faced with the results of the last once-in-a-decade census, the Chinese government has decided on another family planning policy. The decline in the birth rate which went from 18 million in 2016 to 12 million in 2020 reflects not only the failure of the two-child policy implemented 5 years ago but also a threat to the industrialization strategy that the country has been pursuing. China’s birth rate is now comparable to that of countries like Italy or Japan, at 1.3, and is the lowest since the Mao era. For a nation as big as China, a birth rate of 2.1 is needed for the substantial growth of the population. Little by little, the nation faces remarkable ageing rate, and that is why the government not only relaxes the measures regarding births but seeks to extend the retirement age for the elderly (which at the moment is 55 years for women and 60 for men) since the adult population is expected to go from representing 18.7% to more than a fifth of the total population.
China has long been expected to remove such restrictions for the population to grow. However, the authorities resist this change. In addition, it is argued that, if such a sporadic change is made, the rural population, which traditionally has more children than the urban, could rise exponentially, leading to a population gap and poverty in regions most distant from the capital. Some experts point that the fundamental issue is not the restriction itself, but the high living cost accompanying it which acts as a deterrent for many potential parents.