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The Ageing Dilemma: China’s Three-Child Policy

Three is better than one. This was China's recent surprising announcement after the meeting of the Politburo - the Top Communist Party official entity. Following the review of the census published in late 2020, which saw a steady decrease in the birth rate, with 2019 hitting the lowest quota since the 1960s, the political party acknowledged that action was required. President Xi Jinping declared that the prior 2016 two-child policy would be scrapped in favour of limiting the number of babies for one family to three.

The Chinese Republic has a history of forcibly trying to control the growth of its population. Further putting the state's future on the mothers' shoulders represents an additional step in this direction. However, this time Peking's greying of society might not be able to be solved with the simple use of coercion. Indeed, numerous experts have commented that this choice might come a little too late and will not invert Chinese natality's contraction. The negative effects of the prior childbirth laws, the persisting gender imbalance, and the population's cultural development might be only some of the many elements that could hinder the Politburo's recent declaration.

As mentioned earlier, China is no stranger to family planning restriction bills. These acts have often been criticised by humanitarian organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as an abuse of sexual and reproductive rights, promoting sex-selecting abortions and sterilizations. Already in the 1980s, the Chinese government decided to introduce the one-child plan to slow down the population's growth that was emerging as a consequence of the growing economic prosperity. However, officials quickly realised how this plan backfired and was instead seriously hampering Chinese society’s reproduction and labour pool. Therefore, in 2016 when the imminent ageing of the population became clearer, the Communist Party decided to modify the guidelines, allowing couples to have up to two children. Following this decision, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, there was a natality increase and “the number of births rose by 1.3 million to 17.86 million from the previous year”.

Nonetheless, the increment was short-lived and already the following year there was a dwindling in the number of newborns. Since then, China’s nativity has experienced a continuous decrease of around 15% per year, hitting an all-time low of 12 million babies born in 2020 - a decrease of 2.65 million compared to 2019. With this steady contraction, demographers warn that Peking’s population will be reduced and that “(B)y 2050 as much as a third of the country’s population will be made up of people over the age of 60”.

To curb this negative trend, president Xi Jinping recently announced that families would be allowed to have up to three children, shifting away from the previous rules.

The newly introduced measure is meant to devise a baby boom that will revive the all-time low fertility rate of 1.3, to halt the shrinking of China. Neighbouring countries such as Japan, Singapore or South Korea suffer from the same ageing dilemma and have unsuccessfully attempted to raise their birth rate. However, the Chinese Republic’s deadlock’s scale is much greater inasmuch as for decades it used its immense young labour pool to fuel its industrial boom. The collapse of hard-working youth will inevitably restraint Peking’s expansion and block its ambition of becoming the world’s superpower.


However, experts have commented that this national strategy might be too late to attain its designated goals. Many argued that if rules allowing the expansion of households were by themselves sufficient to upraise the number of newborns, the 2016 two-child policy would have produced steady positive effects. Indeed, when reflecting on the new Politburo’s decision, the economist Hao Zhou has stated that “(I)f relaxing the birth policy was effective, the current two-child policy should have proven to be effective too”.

Furthermore, another element that might belittle Xi Jinping announcement is society itself. Alongside its financial development, China’s progress produced a cultural shift in new generations. The 21st century led to a transformation in social attitudes, with many young adults being sceptical about the latest announcement and some affirming not even being interested in having children because of the stress it entails. The revolution of what contemporary success means, with an increasing focus on personal growth and career development, ultimately plunged birth rates in a downward spiral. Today’s youth, in particular women, favour employment and education at the expense of starting a family.


If the recent rules change does not produce the desired results, what would then be the best solution to China’s ageing dilemma? Some scholars have argued that birth restriction measures should be scrapped altogether. For example, Huang Wenzheng, the Center for China and Globalization’s expert, has argued that procreation should be liberalized and that the natality conundrum “should be regarded as a crisis for the survival of the Chinese nation, even beyond the pandemic and other environmental issues”. However, the Communist Party fears that abandoning these laws will lead to a disparity between rural and city people, with countryside citizens traditionally inclined to have numerous households. This will inevitably increment poverty and unemployment, further contributing to the Chinese Republic’s decline.

With some intellectuals saying that China will ultimately be compelled to eliminate any natality restriction in the next years, the future of this country’s population is still uncertain. Nonetheless, the days to come do not look so bright. Indeed, reversing the negative progression might be very difficult, if not impossible. As Zhang Zhiwei, Pinpoint Asset Management’s president pointed out, “(E)vidence in other countries suggests that, once [the] birthrate is on a downward trend, it is difficult to...reverse it”.


Written by Cinzia Saro


Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.


Photograph: Janne Wittoeck |Flickr.com