BEIJING: Beijing’s relaxation of its hugely controversial one-child policy is an attention-grabbing first step, but it will have to usher in greater changes if China is to tackle its looming demographic time bomb, experts say.
According to a Communist Party announcement on Friday, couples in China will now be allowed to have two children if one of the parents is an only child.
Since the late 1970s, most couples in the world’s most populous nation have been legally restricted to a single child, in an effort to control population growth.
“I would not be surprised if a year from now, we’re going to see more and even a complete abandonment of the policy,” said Wang Feng, a Chinese population expert and the director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy in Beijing.
“The government is testing the waters right now. They know that the policy will have to be gone. The policy serves nobody’s interests,” he said.
China’s fertility rate—the number of children a woman has in her lifetime—currently stands at 1.5, academics estimate, far below the 2.1 needed to keep a population stable.
Wang, who has written several books on China’s demographic changes, called the move the biggest change to the policy since it was first implemented and an important step toward its eventual dismantling.
But he estimated it could affect only about 10 million couples, a sliver of China’s 1.35 billion population.
“It does not affect a lot of people,” he said. “And it does not generate too many new births that would make a significant dent or boost in the Chinese demographic landscape.”
Nonetheless it represented a start to “openly and decisively” phasing out the rule, he said.
Current exceptions to the policy include some rural families whose first child is a girl, ethnic minorities, and couples who are both only children.
The new change was only a matter of time, experts say, as the restrictions have contributed towards putting China on course to a demographic disaster.
Officials have long argued that the one-child policy—which is estimated to have prevented 400 million births—has been key to the country’s economic growth and rising prosperity.
But China’s working-age population declined last year for the first time since 1963, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, and the ranks of its elderly are swelling, with 30 percent of people expected to be over 60 in 2050, the United Nations says.