China lifts one-child policy amid worries over graying population

China said it would abandon its controversial “one-child policy” on Thursday and allow all couples to have two children, pulling back from the biggest experiment in modern population in a sign of growing economic pressures from a rapidly aging population.

The move, which came after a meeting of the Communist Party leadership, reflected rising concerns over a rapidly aging population and potential labor shortages that would put immense strains on the economy in the years ahead.

The communiqué from a plenary session of the party’s Central Committee did not give details of when the policy change would be implemented, saying only that the party had decided to “fully adopt the policy that one couple is allowed two children [and] actively take action on aging population.”

It also mentioned a desire to “promote balanced population growth, stick to the basic state policy of family planning and enhance population growth strategy.”

China’s controversial one-child policy was introduced in 1980, but was partially relaxed in 2013.

Wang Feng at the University of California at Irvine has long warned that the country was heading towards a “demographic precipice” and a crisis that could even challenge the legitimacy of Communist Party rule.

The nation’s fertility rate — 1.4 children per woman — is far below that of the United States and many other nations in the developed world, leading to a rapidly graying society and increasing demands on the state such as social programs and health care for the elderly.

It also means a substantial decline in the supply of young labor to power the economy of the world’s No. 2 economy as it seeks to dethrone the United States from the top .

But the end of the one-child policy will do little to relieve the problem for decades, experts warn.

Wang called it “great news” even if the effects of the change will take a generation or more to possibly reverse demographic trends.

“Even though it came way too late, this really marks a historic point to end one of the most controversial and costly policies in human history,” he said. “But China for decades to come will have to live with the aftermath of this costly policy.”

China’s working population fell for a third straight year in 2014, declining by 3.7 million to 916 million, according to government data, in a trend that is expected to accelerate in years ahead.

Meanwhile, the number of people aged 60 and above will approach 400 million, or a quarter of the population, in the early 2030s, according to United Nations forecasts. The 60-plus population currently represents about a seventh of China’s people.

“The reform will slightly slow down China’s ageing society but it won’t reverse it,” said Peng Xizhe, a population professor at Fudan University. “It will ease the labor shortage in the long term, but in the short term it may increase the shortage because more women might stop work to give birth.”

The one-child policy had empowered and often enriched a huge swath of often-corrupt officials across China for the past 35 years, with bribes often paid to skirt the rules. The rule also had been brutally enforced through forced sterilizations and abortions, experts say.

It was first eased to allow couples to have a second child if either parent was an only child. Rural couples could already have a second child if their first child is a girl.

But that policy shift did not appear to lead to a big pick-up in birth rates, with economic pressures and the cultural norms around having one child meaning many families decided to stay as they were.

Nor has China abandoned family planning entirely. Couples will still be limited to two children.

“The change won’t cause a baby wave, as the last policy change proved,” Peng said. “Couples chose not to have second child because of economic pressure and insufficient social welfare.”

Future population growth may partly depend on whether the government introduces policies to actively encourage childbirth such as longer maternity and paternity leave, he said.

Already there are signs some sort of changes are under consideration.

Li Bin, the head of China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, told state television that the authorities should improve supply of public services including reproductive health care for women and children and the availability of kindergartens and nurseries.

Reaction on social media was enthusiastic. “I can’t even believe this is real,” one user posted on the weibo microblogging service. “At least people have an option. Good,” another posted.

But there was also humor, and some bitterness.

“Finally, don’t have to go to the U.S. to have a second child,” one user posted.

“Can we have the fines back? And can we get rid of that certain department?” another wrote.

“I don’t even want this one,” another user joked, while another observed: “But I fear I won’t be able to raise them,” in a reference to the cost of bringing up two children.

The communiqué from the Fifth Plenum also reflected China’s growing concern about climate change, saying the country would “actively participate in global climate change negotiations.”

Simon Denyer