China eases one-child policy as country faces shrinking labour pool

On the 15th of November, the Chinese Government announced that if one partner in a couple has no siblings, they can now have up to two children; marking the first substantial change to the country’s one-child policy in nearly thirty years.

The announcement – which comes amid vocal criticism of Beijing’s handling of social issues and concern over the country’s shrinking labour pool – means over 15 million Chinese parents will be eligible to have a second baby.

It is stipulated China is opting for this incremental step as whilst a universal two-child policy would result in a major population boom – putting pressure on the country’s public services – it is still expected to create a larger future workforce.

However, demographers say the policy change comes too late to solve the looming labor crisis, and are warning against the expectation the country will experience a sizeable boom.

Just babies; no boom

The policy change is so small most are not expecting an influx of newborns.

This is primarily because many young Chinese couples are already electing to have smaller families, with the fertility rate as low as 1.5-1.6 births per woman.

“Young people’s reproductive desires have changed,” Wang Feng, the University of California Irvine’s Professor of Sociology notes.

The result is therefore only expected to total 1 to 2 million extra births per year in the first few years; on top of the 16 million babies born each year in China.

Too little too late

Exerts had been warning for years that time was running out to solve China’s demographic problems.

Birthrates had already fallen, and according to United Nations projections, China’s working-age population – those aged between 15 and 64 – is drastically shrinking: From 2010 to 2030, the country’s labor force is expected to decrease by 67 million workers.

These trends have led to higher wages and inflation; and leaves fewer workers left to take care of China’s growing elderly.

Though the limited easing in the policy is unlikely to fully address these concerns, many see it as a significant step towards returning reproductive rights to the population.

“China is testing the water now,” Wang Feng stipulates: “When they don’t see a baby boom, there will be more confidence to let the policy go altogether.”

Historical context

Faced with an explosive population growth and decreasing living standards, China’s Government implemented birth planning policies through the 1970s; leading to the one-child limit set in 1980.

This restrictions were eased less than half a decade later, allowing couples with no siblings and rural couples whose first child was a female to have two children.

In addition, certain ethnic minorities were allowed to have over two.

Millions of Chinese also managed to expand their brood by paying fines – or even giving birth outside of China.

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