ExplainerThree-child policy: how many children can you have in China?
- China’s one-child policy started in 1980 and was strictly enforced before it was officially ended in January 2016 in favour of a two-child policy
- Responding to its 2020 census results, China introduced a three-child policy in May 2021 after Chinese mothers gave birth to just 12 million babies in 2020
What is China’s three-child policy?
China's three-child policy was introduced after Chinese mothers gave birth to just 12 million babies in 2020, adding to existing population concerns.
“Birth policies will be further improved. A policy that allows a couple to have three children will be introduced with supporting measures,” it said.
“This will improve the population structure of China.”
The regulation was passed at a meeting of the country's top lawmakers, the National People's Congress (NPC), on August 20, 2021.
China expands two-child policy to three
Why did China change its birth policy in 2021?
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said Chinese mothers gave birth to 12 million babies in 2020, down from 14.65 million in 2019, marking an 18 per cent decline. This represented the fourth consecutive drop in the annual birth rate.
China’s fertility rate was 1.3 children per woman – below the replacement level of 2.1 needed for a stable population.
The NBS added that the average number of children that a Chinese woman said they were willing to have last year was 1.8.
The annual growth rate was 0.53 per cent for the period from 2010 to 2020, the slowest of any decade since China’s first census in 1953. It was down by 0.04 percentage points compared with the average growth rate of 0.57 per cent from 2000 to 2010, according to the NBS.
What was the reaction to China’s three-child policy?
State News Agency Xinhua polled 31,000 people, finding just 1,443 of them were “ready” to have a third child. It was “on the agenda” for 213 respondents, while 828 were “hesitant”. The poll results, though, disappeared not long after they were posted.
A report by demographers at Renmin University of China backed up the sentiment as they estimated that the policy would lead to an annual increase of 200,000 to 300,000 births in the next five years – a slight increase from the rate of 12 million births last year.
Hu Xingdou, an independent political economist in Beijing, said young Chinese were unlikely to want to have bigger families.
“The government should work hard to relieve the burden of education, of housing among other things to improve people’s willingness [to have more children].”
How has China’s birth policy evolved?
It restricted most couples to only a single offspring, and for years authorities argued it was a key factor in supporting the country’s economic boom.
Civil servants and employees of government-affiliated organisations, including universities, risked losing their jobs if they were found to have had more than one child.
If parents did not pay a fine, second children could not be registered in the national household system, or hukou, meaning they did not exist legally and so would not have access to social services like health care and education.
National Health and Family Planning Commission spokesman Mao Qunan said the agency’s work had reduced the number of births in China over the years by “400 million”.
The one-child policy was generally accepted to mean one birth per family, so if women gave birth to two or more children at the same time, they would not be penalised.
Various reports in Chinese and international media suggested that this loophole led mothers to take fertility drugs to have multiple births.
China 2020 census records slowest population growth in decades
China officially ended its one-child policy on January 1, 2016, with the signing into law of a bill allowing all married couples to have a second child as it attempted to cope with an ageing population and shrinking workforce.
In March 2018, the new National Health Commission also took over responsibility for population management from the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
At the time, officials said the phrase “family planning” would disappear from the ministerial lexicon as China grappled with its shrinking labour pool and rapidly ageing population.
What is the outlook for China’s birth policy?
In its most recent estimate in November 2020, the government said it expected China’s population to peak in 2027.
But He Yafu, an independent expert on China’s demographics, expects the population to start to fall in 2022 as the number of births drops to nearly 10 million and the number of deaths surpasses 10 million.
There had already been signs that China’s national birth rate and population were on the verge of falling, with some experts warning of grave consequences.
Beijing, which has a population of around 21 million, suffered a 24.3 per cent decline in its birth rate in 2020 compared with a year earlier, according to official data.