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China ends decades-long one-child policy

China has decided to scrap its decades-long “one-child” policy -35-year-old to be precise - allowing all couples to have two children, for the first time since draconian family rules were introduced more than three decades ago. The decision was taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) on Thursday, following a four-day party summit in Beijing, amid a looming demographic crunch that threatens the long-term health of the world’s second largest economy. Worries about the ageing population and low birth rate, above all, a growing shortfall in the workforce have forced the sudden change of heart, experts said. The end of the one-child policy represents a decisive moment in China’s history, a change that will undoubtedly shape the nation’s long-term future.

China will ease family restrictions to “fully implement a policy of allowing each couple to have two children as an active response to an ageing population,” the party said in a statement. ”The change of policy is intended to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population.”

For months there has been speculation that Beijing was planning to abolish the divisive family planning rule, which was introduced nationally in the late 1970s to prevent population growth spiraling out of control. For the first time in decades the working age population fell in 2012, and China could be the first country in the world to get old before it gets rich. Since 2013, there has been a gradual relaxation of China’s planning laws that already allowed minority ethnic families and rural couples whose firstborn was a girl to have more than one child. Over time, the policy has been relaxed in some provinces, as demographers and sociologists raised concerns about rising social costs and falling worker numbers.

The announcement of the new policy was made at the closing of a key party meeting focused on financial reforms and maintaining growth between 2016 and 2020 against a backdrop of uncertainty for China’s leaders. Some took it as a positive step towards greater personal freedom in China, while many citizens who were asked whether they would grasp the chance to have two children expressed reluctance or outright indifference. One could see the scrapping of the one-child policy as being a practical, pragmatic response to deal with an increasingly unpopular policy that no longer made any sense, the long term implication of which are likely to be minimal.

However, for many hundreds of thousands of couples, the change in policy will allow them to fulfill their dream of having a second child. Moreover, the new policy will end major problems forced by one-child policy, including sex-selective abortions, forced sterilizations that have caused a dramatic gender imbalance in the country. The controversial policy has left 150 million Chinese families, or one in three, with only one child. However, the relaxation of family planning rules is unlikely to have a long-term demographic impact, particularly in urban areas where couples are now reluctant to have two children because of the high cost.

It would have been virtually unthinkable for Beijing to completely abandon its family planning rules, said Stuart Gietel-Basten, an University of Oxford demographer who has argued for the end of the one-child policy. “That would in some ways imply that the policy was wrong, which of course would be a smack in the face of the last two generations of policymakers who stuck by it.”

“Getting rid of it completely probably wasn’t an option in the short term. But in the long term it’s certainly not inconceivable that they would move towards a pronatalist policy at some point, maybe over the next five or 10 years, and that they would develop policies similar to in Korea or in Taiwan, or in Hong Kong or in Singapore, where there would be incentives for couples with one child to have a second child. I certainly think that is the future direction it [policy] is likely to go in.”

The government didn’t present a timeline for the rollout of the policy, but implementation will be gradual. The National Health and Family Planning Commission will reportedly move to ensure that there are enough services in place for couples wanting to have a second child in order to avoid major population spikes and fluctuations. Local officials will simplify the birth application procedures for couples who currently have to go through a complicated procedure that often takes months.