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China allows 3 children in landmark volte-face

Four decades after enforcing its one-child policy to control the population, China, on Monday, said couples could have up to three children, a move that comes against a worrying decline in births as confirmed in new Census data earlier this month, an ageing population, and a prospect of being an older country than both India and the US by 2050.

China, the most populous country in the world, is burdened with an ageing citizenry despite scrapping the decades-old one-child policy in 2016, which did not show the desired growth in population needed to sustain the world’s second-largest economy in the long run.

China’s population is growing at its slowest pace in decades, with the country adding only 72 million people in the past decade, the Census data showed. And Beijing faces tough social and economic questions on how to look after hundreds of millions of elderly citizens as the younger population is set to shrink in the next few decades.

China will also be aware of India’s demographic dividend: In 2050 when the median age of China will be 55-56 years, that of India will be 38 years, and the US 44-45 years. That difference could be critical in the long-term economic race between three countries that are expected to dominate the world’s economy. Interestingly, China’s current median age is 38.8 years, the US’s, 38, and India’s 29 years.

For China, the rapid change infamily planning policies shows the urgency it faces in trying to correct the skew in its population numbers. “To further optimise the birth policy, [China] will implement a one-married-couple-can-have-three-children policy,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a report following a meeting of the politburo, a top decision-making body of the Communist Party of China (CPC), chaired by President Xi Jinping.

The policy change will come with “supportive measures, which will be conducive to improving our country’s population structure, fulfilling the country’s strategy of actively coping with an ageing population and maintaining the advantage, endowment of human resources”, Xinhua added.

It did not specify the support measures. And those could be critical, one expert said.

“It is a good sign but won’t help much to improve the downward trend unless strong incentive measures are implemented,” Huang Wenzheng a demographer at the Beijing-based think-tank Centre for China and Globalisation said. Elaborating on the incentives, Huang said those with more children should be given progressive tax deductions, even cash bonuses.

“People are held back not by the two-children limit, but by the incredibly high costs of raising children in today’s China. Housing, extracurricular activities, food, trips — everything adds up quickly,” Yifei Li, a sociologist at NYU Shanghai, told Reuters.

“Raising the limit itself is unlikely to tilt anyone’s calculus in a meaningful way, in my view,” he added. Beijing is aware of the demographic advantage India possesses.

“India has a huge demographic edge over China with a larger and younger population in the future. But it has much to do to capitalise on this potential advantage like improving education and removing barriers between states,” Huang said.

While China’s fertility rate is 1.3, India has maintained a fertility rate of around 2.3, which indicates that its population may surpass China’s by 2023 or 2024, He Yafu, an independent demographer, told Chinese state media earlier in May. “The meeting stressed that proactively responding to the aging population directly relates to the country’s development and people’s well-being, and it is an important measure to achieve the high-quality development of the economy and safeguard national security and social stability,” the Xinhua report added.

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