After 35 years, China has decided to scrap its one-child policy, allowing couples to have two children for the first time in decades.
Introduced in response to fears of an uncontrollable population boom, the one-child policy has led China towards a new population crisis. The impact of an ageing population has been particularly acute in China, where the the population of citizens over-60 has continued to increase whilst the size of the working age population has steadily shrunk. The number of people between 15 and 59 fell by 3.71 million people last year.
Highlighting this as a key factor behind the change in policy, China’s official news agency stated that: “The change of policy is intended to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population.”
This historic step was announced after a Communist party summit in Beijing where leaders debated financial reform and China’s future growth.
Since its introduction in 1979, the one-child policy has placed a heavy burden on Chinese families and became an ongoing source of controversy on the international stage.
Families who violated the law have been subject to severe punishments, including forced abortions and sterilisations. Cultural attitudes towards gender led to increased levels of abortions and infanticide of female babies in favour of a male child.
The resulting gender imbalance has become a major pressure point. Between 20 and 30 million young men in China will never find a female spouse, leaving the country with a disproportionate number of unmarried men in a single generation.
However, the change in policy will hopefully have a positive impact on women’s rights, although the shift does not necessarily reflect an easing of social control. It’s a reform, not a revolution, as Chinese couples will still only be allowed to have 2 children.
Some have welcomed the move as a step towards greater freedom, while others claim that it does not go far enough, calling for the total abandonment of policies that seek to control a person’s reproductive choices.
Many experts also believe that it will take time for the change in policy to influence behaviour. Rumours of a reversal in the one-child policy have been circulating all year, and this survey of China’s social network Weibo suggests that many Chinese citizens were skeptical about the impact any change would bring. Rising living costs in China means many cannot afford to have more than one child.
However, the one-child policy was certainly intensely unpopular in China and left a deep impact across society. People across China have therefore celebrated the shift as a movement towards further freedom. “This is a huge adjustment for China’s population policy. Thumbs up for the central decision,” wrote Le Yun, an associate professor with Guangdong University of Technology, on his microblog.
The end of the one-child policy represents a decisive moment in China's history, a change that will doubtless shape the nation’s long-term future.