BEIJING (AP) — China
's ruling Communist Party announced Monday that it will relax birth restrictions, allowing all couples to have three children
instead of two, in an effort to slow the country's rapid population aging, which is putting strains on the economy
Since 1980, the ruling party has enforced birth limits to limit population growth, but it is concerned that the number of working-age people
is declining too quickly while the share of people over 65 is increasing, threatening to derail its ambitions to transform China into a prosperous consumer society and global technology leader.
According to the official Xinhua News
Agency, a ruling party meeting led by President Xi Jinping
decided to implement “measures to actively deal
with the aging population,” with leaders agreeing to “implement the policy of one couple having three children and supporting measures conducive to improving China’s population structure.”
According to Xinhua, leaders also agreed that China's retirement age should be raised in order to keep more people in the labor
force and to improve pension and health care
services for the elderly.
Restrictions that limited most couples to one child were eased in 2015 to allow two, but the total number of births fell even more, indicating that rule changes alone have little impact on the trend.
Couples say the high costs of raising a child, the disruption to their jobs
, and the need to care for elderly parents are deterrents.
On social media
Monday, people complained that the change does nothing to help young parents who are struggling with medical bills, low incomes, and grueling work schedules known as "996," or 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week.
“Every stage of the problem hasn’t been solved,” said Tchaikovsky in a post on the popular Sina Weibo blog service. “Who will raise the baby? Do you have time? I go out early and get back late. Kids have no idea what their parents look like.”
Another, signed Hyeongmok, remarked bitterly, "Don't worry about aging. Our generation won't live long."
China, along with Thailand and a few other Asian economies, is confronted with what economists refer to as the "challenge of getting rich before getting old."
The Chinese population of 1.4 billion was expected to peak later this decade and begin to decline; however, census data released on May 11 indicate that this is happening faster than expected, adding to the burdens on underfunded pension and health systems and reducing the number of future workers available to support a growing retiree group.
Working-age people aged 15 to 59 made up 63.3% of the population last year, down from 70.1% a decade ago, while those aged 65 and up increased to 13.5% from 8.9%.
Last year's total of 12 million births was nearly one-fifth of what it was in 2019.
According to Ning Jizhe, a statistics official who released the data on May 11, roughly 40% were second children, down from 50% in 2017.
According to Chinese researchers and the Labor Ministry, the proportion of working-age people may fall to half the population by 2050, increasing the "dependency ratio," or the number of retirees who rely on each worker to generate income for pension funds and pay taxes for health and other public services.
Leaders agreed on Monday that it is “necessary to steadily implement the gradual postponement of the legal retirement age,” according to Xinhua.
The government has been debating raising the official retirement ages of 60 for men, 55 for white-collar female workers, and 50 for blue-collar female workers, but no details were provided.
Some female professionals welcome the opportunity to stay in fulfilling careers, but others whose bodies are worn out from decades of manual labor resent having to work longer hours.
In 2020, the fertility
rate, or the average number of births per mother, was 1.3, far below the 2.1 required to keep the population at its current size.
The average number of children per Chinese mother fell from more than six in the 1960s to less than three by 1980, mirroring trends in other Asian economies.
According to demographers, official birth limits hid what would have been a further decline in the number of children per family if the restrictions had not been in place.
The ruling party claims that it has prevented up to 400 million potential births, averting food
and water shortages; however, demographers believe that if China had followed trends in Thailand, parts of India
, and other countries, the number of additional babies could have been as low as a few million.
Fu Ting, an Associated Press writer
based in Bangkok, contributed to this report.