BEIJING, China — Chinese leaders announced on Thursday that they would officially end the country’s “one-child policy,” allowing couples to have two children instead. The standard, which was designed to help curb the country’s population growth, has been one of the most controversial policies of the last century. Here’s what you need to know now that the policy is on its way out.
Why did China create the policy in the first place?
Under Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule between 1949 and 1976, China’s population nearly doubled to 940 million people. That spike, combined with growing fears of global overpopulation, inspired China’s leaders to attempt to slow further growth.
China established the one-child policy in 1979. The “one-child” label itself is a bit of a misnomer. While urban families have largely been limited to one child, many couples were given exceptions, including ethnic minorities, rural families whose first child was a daughter and couples who were both only children. Still, for decades anyone who exceeded the birth limits was subject to escalating fines, as well as forced sterilizations and abortions (warning: graphic image in link).
Did it “work”?
This is a very intensely debated topic. One widely touted study claimed the policy reduced new births by 400 million. Other experts have put the tally at 200 million, a number still equal to roughly the entire population of Brazil. What isn’t included in those numbers are the vast human costs — the violence of forced abortions, parents denied the right to build the family they want, socially disruptive gender imbalances. Ripple effects of all these disruptions — hundreds of millions of births prevented, deep tears in the social fabric, profound demographic imbalances — will continue to play out for decades, as will debate over the policy.
So what just happened?
The Chinese Communist Party said it would allow for second children in all families, but further details on timing and regulations for “excess births” haven’t been announced. This is the latest and most decisive in a progressive series of steps to loosen the policy — most notably, a change in 2013 allowed couples to have an extra child if either parent was an only child.
Why are they ending it now?
Chinese leaders and experts now see the policy as fueling massive economic and social problems. Limiting births has contributed to unfavorable demographics, with a shrinking number of people supporting an ever-growing retired population. The country’s economy once benefited from a “demographic dividend” of a swollen working-age population, but China is starting to pay that debt down in the form of slowing growth and higher spending on health and retirements.
On top of age imbalances, the policy has also helped fuel an enormous sex-ratio imbalance: Experts predict that by 2020 China will have 30 million more marriage-age men than women. Traditional preferences for boys meant that families limited to one or two children often practiced (illegal) sex-selective abortions or abandoned newborn daughters. Authorities fear the resulting generation of bachelors could contribute to crime and social instability.
Now that the policy is done, is China primed for a baby boom?
Not likely. The policy was initially designed to slow births in a predominantly agricultural society, where more children meant more laborers and security in old age. In today’s increasingly urban and educated society, the economics of raising a family have flipped. Now the costs of putting a child through school place an enormous burden on families, dampening their desire for a second child. Loosening the policy two years ago produced fewer additional births than hoped and a baby boom doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.