The one-child policy also contributed to a surplus of men, partly because of a patriarchal tradition of favoring male children. That means an excess of young males with no marriage prospects, a formula for potential unrest and chaos of the kind party leaders fear most.

Share story

BEIJING — Driven by fears that an aging population could jeopardize China’s economic ascent, the Communist Party leadership ended its decades-old “one child” policy Thursday, announcing that all married couples would be allowed to have two children.

The decision was a key step back from a core Communist Party position that Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who imposed the policy in the late 1970s, once said was needed to ensure that “the fruits of economic growth are not devoured by population growth.”

For China’s leaders, the controls were a demonstration of the party’s capacity to reshape even the most intimate dimensions of citizens’ lives. But they bred intense resentment over the brutal intrusions involved, including forced abortions and crippling fines, especially in the countryside.

Key events in the history of China’s family-planning policy:

1953: Chinese leaders suggest the population should be controlled and approve a law on contraception and abortion, but the plan is stranded by political upheaval and the 1959-61 famine.

1970: Chinese population tops 800 million. The State Council, China’s Cabinet, mandates sharp reductions in populatio- growth rates throughout the 1970s.

1975: China adopts the slogan “Later, Longer and Fewer” and urges urban couples to have no more than two children and rural couples no more than three.

1979: The Communist Party introduces the “one-child” policy limiting couples of the Han ethnic majority to one child as a temporary measure to curb a surging population.

1984: An adjustment of the policy allows a second child for many families in rural areas.

2001: China decrees new laws to better administer the policy, including allowing local governments to impose fines for additional children.

2006: Some provinces begin easing restrictions to allow couples who are both only children to have two children.

2013: An exemption allows two children in families in which only one parent is an only child.

2015: China’s Communist Party says all couples will be allowed to have two children.

— The Associated Press

The policy also contributed to a surplus of men, partly because of a patriarchal tradition of favoring male children. That means an excess of young males with no marriage prospects, a formula for potential unrest and chaos of the kind party leaders fear most.

“Certainly the Communist Party for many years said the sex-ratio imbalance is a severe societal problem,” said Leta Hong Fincher, a Hong Kong-based sociologist who specializes in Chinese policy toward women and families. “They have been talking about loosening the policy for years. Still, I am surprised they did this without a more gradual step. It suggests they felt they needed to move rapidly because of the demographic crisis.”

Even with the lifting of the one-child rule, the Communist Party hasn’t completely gotten out of the business of dictating reproductive decisions. Under the new policy, announced in a party communiqué late Thursday, couples nationwide will be allowed to have two children, but no more.

It also appears the party will not immediately loosen restrictions on single women having children, a sore point for the country’s feminists.

The announcement was the highlight of a party meeting at which President Xi Jinping sought to display his control over a flagging economy after a jittery summer of tepid indicators, deepening skepticism about official data and a tumultuous slide in the stock market.

Baby boom?

While the decision surprised many experts and ordinary Chinese, some said it was unlikely to ignite either a baby boom or an economic one.

“Anything demographic, we always have to think in terms of decades in terms of long-term impact,” said Tao Wang, the chief China economist at UBS.

“It’s not about stimulating growth or consumption of baby powder next quarter or next year,” she said. “Will the birthrate go up? Yes. Will it somehow increase significantly? We don’t know.”

China eased some restrictions in the one-child policy over the years, most recently in 2013, allowing couples to have two children if one spouse was an only child. But many eligible couples declined to have a second child, citing the expense and pressures of raising children in a highly competitive society.

The initial public reaction to the party leaders’ decision was restrained, and many citizens in Beijing who were asked whether they would grasp at the chance to have two children expressed reluctance or outright indifference. Some, however, were pleased.

“Really, can you show me the news on your phone?” said Sun Bing, 34, the owner of a small technology store in Beijing, who had his 2-year-old son by his side.

“This is a good thing, and I’m very supportive,” he said. “I want to have a second kid in two years. But, of course, it’s not cheap to raise children.”

Most people interviewed voiced misgivings. “Before I had my first child, I was hoping for the relaxation of the one-child policy,” said Chen Feng, 36, who works at a medical-equipment company. “I changed my mind after I gave birth to my daughter.”

“It takes a lot of energy to take care of a child, and you want to make sure the child will have a good future,” she said. “So my husband and I have decided not to have a second child.”

Greg Eubanks, CEO of the World Association for Children and Parents, an intercountry adoption agency based in Seattle, said the change “really won’t affect us,” even though most of the children the agency places are from China.

The rate of adoption for healthy infant girls used to be much higher. “But in the last decade, it’s completely dropped off.” The agency’s Chinese children tend to be what he called, “waiting children,” older children who often have special needs or medical diagnoses.

David Leong, second vice president of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, said the single-child rule was especially difficult for families that experienced the death of their only child. He pointed out that during the recent crash involving Ride the Ducks vehicle on the Aurora Bridge a student from China was among the dead. Under the previous policy, “If something happens and that child dies from an accident or illness, there’s no way to have another child.”

Economic pressure

China’s working-age population, those 15 to 64, grew by at least 100 million people from 1990 until a couple of years ago. But that expansion is tapering off, and more people are living longer, leaving a greater burden on a shrinking workforce. Now, about one-tenth of the population is 65 or older, and according to earlier estimates, that proportion is likely to reach 15 percent by 2027 and 20 percent by 2035.

The Chinese economy grew 6.9 percent in the third quarter relative to a year earlier, according to data released this month. But that figure, while robust compared with growth in advanced economies, was the slowest for China since the global financial crisis of 2009, and some economists say the economy is much weaker.

Demographers and economists say the cost and difficulty of child-rearing are likely to deter many eligible couples from having two children despite the relaxed rules, Mu Guangzong, a professor of demography at Peking University, said in a telephone interview.

“I don’t think a lot of parents would act on it, because the economic pressure of raising children is very high in China,” he said. “The birthrate in China is low and its population is aging quickly, so from the policy point of view, it’s a good thing, as it will help combat a shortage of labor force in the future. But many parents simply don’t have the economic conditions to raise more children.”

By May, about 1.45 million couples had applied to have a second child under the relaxed rules announced in late 2013, but that was only about 12 percent of the number eligible, disappointing demographers and policymakers who had hoped the policy shift would do more to counteract the rapid aging of China’s population.

Now, the party leadership has acted more forcefully, apparently in the hope that a burst of children will replenish the nation’s workforce and encourage more consumer spending.

The decision to replace the one-child policy with a “two- child” one was among the few substantial changes announced during the four-day Central Committee meeting in western Beijing. A fuller summary of the five-year development plan is likely to be released in several days, and the full document will be issued next year.

Forced abortions

The one-child policy took shape in the late 1970s, when Deng and other leaders concluded that China’s growing population threatened to stifle economic growth. The restrictions went into effect in cities, but in the countryside, many families continued to have two or more children.

The government has also excused ethnic minorities from complying.

As the years went on, harsh official campaigns to fine and punish couples who violated the rules, and sometimes to force women to have abortions, became a source of public discontent.

Experts are divided on how effective the one-child rule has been stabilizing China’s population of nearly 1.4 billion. The policy was unevenly enforced, with exemptions and loose oversight for ethnic minorities and rural farmers.

Even so, implementation of the policy created hardships and heartbreaks for many. Government regularly fined and ostracized families breaking the rules. In one of its most controversial aspects, local officials forced an uncounted number of women to undergo abortions, often late in pregnancy.

Because of cultural pressures to create male heirs, many families gave up their daughters for adoption, filling Chinese orphanages with female toddlers and fueling what became a generation of China-born adoptees in the United States and elsewhere.

Because of such policies and practices, China today has a gender imbalance. According to a report by China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, there will be 30 million more men than women nationwide within five years.

Liang Zhongtang, a retired demographer who has advised Chinese officials on population policy since the 1980s and has long argued that they should relax the one-child policy, said the change had come too late to make a big difference in the country’s population trajectory. He said he had pushed for such a change since the 1980s.

“It’s not just a problem of whether you permit ordinary people to have one or two kids. It’s about returning their reproductive rights to them,” Liang said in a telephone interview from Shanghai. “In over 200 countries and regions around the world, which of them nowadays controls people’s reproduction like this?”