China lifts one-child policy amid worries over graying population
BEIJING - China abandoned its "one-child policy" Thursday and announced it would allow all couples to have two children, the state news agency Xinhua reported, in a sign of economic pressures from an 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.
Xinhua did not immediately give details of when the policy change would be implemented. 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 joined other China affairs experts in warning 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 aging 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 spot.
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 one-child policy 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 pickup in birth rates, with economic pressures and the cultural norms around having one child meaning many families decided to stay as they were.