China just relaxed its 2-child policy to 3—but don’t bet on a baby boom

China’s government on Monday announced that it will increase its two-child policy to three, weeks after Beijing released its once-in-a-decade census that showed its population is growing at its slowest pace in decades.

“Birth policies will be further improved. Policy that allows a couple to have three children will be introduced with supporting measures,” China’s state-backed Xinhua News Agency reported Monday, citing a Politburo meeting held on Monday and chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping. “This will improve the population structure of China,” Xinhua added.

Xinhua did not mention when the policy will take effect, but said the meeting was focused on policies China will implement within the next five years.

Xinhua said the policy will be aimed at helping counteract the effects of China’s aging population. In China’s 2020 census, the country reported that its population had grown at an average annual rate of 0.53% in the last decade, the slowest since 1953.

The census also showed that China’s population is far older than it was a decade ago. From 2010 to 2020, China’s population aged between 15 and 59 shrunk by 46 million people from 940 million in 2010 to 894 million people in 2020. Meanwhile, the share of its population over the age of 60 grew by 87 million people and accounted for 18.7% of the population versus 13.3% in 2010.

China is attempting to engineer a baby boom by relaxing its policy to allow for three children, but prior evidence suggests inducing Chinese families to have more children is a daunting challenge.

After China eased its one-child policy to two in 2016, parents in China had 17.86 million babies that year, 1.3 million more babies than they did in 2015. But birth rates have declined each year since then, reaching 12 million in 2020, the fewest since China experienced mass famines in the 1960s.

The United Nations has projected that China’s population will peak in size in 2027 before it starts to decline.

The looming demographic crisis represents a major threat to China’s economic growth trajectory since the output from a dwindling number of workers will have to support a growing class of seniors.

In the statement, Xinhua acknowledged that a national strategy is needed for China to counteract its aging crisis.

Xinhua also said that China will gradually increase its retirement age, invest more in its pension system, and implement other measures to boost birth rates and support parents, such as ensure more access to education.

But the measures may not be enough to convince Chinese parents who have been instilled with a cultural preference for small families and who are wary of the expense of raising children.

After the measures were introduced on Monday, Xinhua conducted a flash poll on the Twitter-like platform Weibo to gauge whether respondents would have three children after the announcement.

The poll showed that 29,000 of 31,000 respondents said they would “never think of it” before Xinhua removed the poll from the platform.

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