China’s ruling Communist Party said on Monday that it would allow all couples to have three children, ending a two-child policy that has failed to boost the country’s declining birthrates or address an impending demographic crisis.
The move reflected concerns that the rapidly rising number of older people in China could exacerbate a shortage of workers and strain the economy in the near future.
The party made the announcement after a meeting by the Politburo, its top decision-making body. It said the decision would “help improve our country’s population structure and help implement a national strategy to actively respond to the aging population.”
The “one-child” policy was imposed in 1980 as a way to slow population growth and bolster the economic boom that was then just beginning.
In 2013, as Chinese officials began to understand the implications of the country’s aging population, the government allowed parents who were from one-child families to have two children themselves. Two years later, the limit was raised to two children for everyone, effective Jan. 1, 2016.
Demographers in China have long lobbied for the government to abandon all birth restrictions, but Beijing has moved slowly despite signs that the two-child policy was not working.
Births in China have fallen for four consecutive years. Still, the announcement on Monday took several experts by surprise.
“This was a bit sudden and earlier than I expected,” said He Yafu, an independent demographer based in the southern city of Zhanjiang. “The decision makers have probably realized that the population situation is relatively severe.”
The party’s announcement on Monday is likely to revive longstanding complaints about the government’s invasive control over women’s bodies in China. On China’s popular social media platform, Weibo, users were quick to post remarks criticizing the move as ineffective.
“Don’t they know that most young people are already tired enough just trying to feed themselves?” wrote one user, pointing to a common lament about the rising costs of living.
For decades, China’s family planning restrictions empowered the authorities to impose punishing fines on most couples who had more than one child and compel hundreds of millions of Chinese women to have abortions or undergo sterilization operations.