China further relaxed its family planning policyallowing couples to have up to three children, after census data showed a steep decline in birth rates.The one-child policy had been scrapped in 2016 and replaced with a two-child limit which has failed to lead to a sustained upsurge in births.
The census was conducted in late 2020 with some seven million census takers going door to door to collect information from households.The statistical data, released this month, showed that around 12 million babies were born last year: a significant decrease from the 18 million in 2016, and the lowest number of births recorded since the 1960s.
It was widely expected that after the census results were released, China would relax its family policy rules.China’s population trends have over the years been largely shaped by the one-child policy, that was introduced in 1979 to slow population growth.
Families that violated the rules faced fines, loss of employment and sometimes forced abortions.
The one-child policy also led to a severe gender imbalance in the country. The traditional preference for male children led to large numbers of girls being abandoned or placed in orphanages, or cases of sex-selective abortions or even female infanticide.
The three children policy was approved by President Xi Jinping at a meeting of top Communist Party officials and, according to Xinhua news agency, 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”,
But human rights organisation Amnesty International said the new policy, like those that precede it, was still a violation of sexual and reproductive rights.“Governments have no business regulating how many children people have. Rather than ‘optimising’ its birth policy, China should instead respect people’s life choices and end any invasive and punitive controls over people’s family planning decisions,” said Amnesty International’s China team head, Joshua Rosenzweig.
Evidently there is a serious issue between public collective interest and individual rights: a shrinking national population against still increasing or stable workforce requirements creates dilemmas that inevitably revolve around themes like preservation of the political and strategic viability of a country, national culture, immigration and Artificial Intelligence robotisation of tasks entrusted to a higher number of human workers.
Sinologist and Chief Analyst on Chinese Affairs at Nato Defense College Foundation. Foreign affairs writer for international magazines and publications.