Earlier in May, the results of the seventh national census were released to the public, demonstrating the country's multiple demographic challenges, including slower growth, a growing aging population and a shrinking working-age population.
The time period from implementing the policy of single child for most urban couples to allowing every couple to have up to two children spanned over three decades. The rural and ethnic minority couples have largely been exempt from the family planning policy. Compared with that, the five-year-span from two- to three-child policy is a lot shorter.
The new policy is expected to maximize the population's role in boosting economic and social growth and address the risks of a downward trend in fertility, according to the National Health Commission (NHC).
Learning about the long discussions regarding birth control in the past several years might help people understand the rationale behind the new policy. Birth policy shift has been a hot topic in recent years in China, especially at the annual "two sessions," namely those of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
Zhu Lieyu, a lawyer from Guangdong Province and a deputy to the 13th NPC, has been calling for a three-child policy since 2018. Zhu said that for more than two decades, the total fertility rate, the average number of children a woman would have in a lifetime, in China has been lower than 2.1, the current internationally accepted level for developed countries at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next.
"This has caused an imbalance in the demographic structure of China," Zhu said. He is glad to see the new policy in place and said more supporting measures need to be introduced to go with the new decision.
Regarding the obstacles that have made Chinese parents hesitant to have more children, including financial burdens, a shortage of infant care services and impacts on the professional career, he suggested introducing more measures such as giving new mothers a three-year paid maternity leave.
This suggestion though was commented on by many netizens for being "impractical." "That means if a woman plans to have three children, the
employer needs to give her maternity leave for nine years and still pay her," a netizen said in a post. "I don't think that will work," the commentator concluded.
The family planning policy has been eased step by step. In 2013, couples either or both of whom were the only child of their parents were allowed to have a second child. In 2016, the universal two-child policy began to be implemented.
The two-child policy brought about a short-lived increase in the number of second births. The number of newborns in 2016 was 1.91 million higher than that in 2015, but afterwards the number decreased four years in a row. The reasons behind the falling birthrate, as the NHC revealed, hail from many factors, including the shrinking group of women of child-bearing age, the postponement of marriage and reproduction, dampened fertility intentions and the impact of COVID-19.
In stark contrast to the above, the size of elderly population has been on steady increase in recent years. The latest national census show that the Chinese aged 60 and above reached 264.02 million, or 18.7 percent of the overall population, up 5.44 percentage points from 2010. It is predicted that in a year or two, people aged 60 or above will account for 20 percent of China's total population.
Yuan Xin, a professor with the Institute of Population and Development with Tianjin-based Nankai University, said a public service system covering child and elderly care is necessary to ensure the implementation of the new policy. For example, "Kids in the 0-3 year age group should be integrated into the public service system to lower the cost of raising them and thus encourage more couples to have two or three children," Yuan said.
More to expect
"Few of my married friends expressed their willingness to have a third child," a 36-year-old Beijing resident surnamed Zou said. "The financial burden is the top concern."
Zou said the single-child generation might face the toughest family burden ever. "As many of us are in our thirties, it is common for one couple to take care of four seniors and at least one child," Zou said. "Considering the housing prices and high consumption levels in big cities, it is a struggle already."
Lu Jiehua, a professor at Peking University, said that urbanization over the past decades has changed China's society in many aspects. The younger generations, after leaving their hometown and moving into cities, either for the purposes of further education or work, need to ensure their financial stability before marriage, resulting in marriage and child-birth at an older age.
The mindset has also been transformed with urbanization, according to Lu. The traditional big family structure was hard to maintain as family members live in different places. Small families, with three to four members today have become the main structure of modern society.
Although many netizens expressed a lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of having a third child, the market responded to the new policy with confidence. Stocks of certain companies dealing with maternity and baby products on the Chinese bourses surged on June 1, one day after its announcement. Some rose by as much as 10 percent, the daily limit. Companies engaged in businesses related to toys, toddler food and early education also saw a rise in the stock market.
A research report by CITIC Securities shows that on the short term, this new policy expects to see a 10-percent increase in new births.
Zou saw the positive influence of the new policy from yet another perspective. "When most families have only one child, parents are likely to put high expectations on the one child, resulting in the anxieties of both the kid and parents," Zou said. "To have three children might relieve such anxieties to some extent."
Dang Junwu, the deputy director of the China Research Center on Aging, expects to see more supporting measures to follow up. "The implementation of this new policy will have a fundamental influence on our demographic structure by 2035," Dang said. "But that can only happen with various measures to go with the policy, including those ensuring gender equality and lowering the cost of raising children." BR
(Print Edition Title: One, Two, Three)