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China Chips Away at One-Child Policy

BEIJING—China’s relaxation of its one-child policy, announced last week, is unlikely to spark a baby boom. But it may be a steppingstone to a bigger change that influences when the nation’s population peaks—a milestone with major ramifications for food security.

The government announced on 15 November that it will allow Chinese couples to have two children if one spouse is an only child. Exceptions to the one-child rule already exist for ethnic minorities, rural families without boys, and couples in which both parents are only children. But Chinese demographers have long called for wider changes, arguing that the decades-old policy has contributed to a series of social problems, such as the country’s aging population, gender imbalance, and labor shortages. Official statistics show that China’s fertility rate has dropped from 2.86 in 1982 to about 1.5 to 1.6 births per woman now.

The new policy could affect millions of lives, but demographers and policymakers believe it won’t have a significant impact on China’s current demographic reality. The policy will allow up to 12 million women of reproductive age in China to have a second child, according to estimates by Wang Guangzhou, a demographer at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In a study published in the Chinese journal Sociological Studies in September 2012, Wang and his colleagues estimate that the new policy, if carried out nationwide in 2015, could lead to 1 million to 2 million additional births a year, on top of the 15 million births a year at present. The team also forecast that under the change, China’s total population would peak at 1.4 billion by 2029 and decline to 1.3 billion by 2050.

Many demographers consider the relaxation a prelude to eventually allowing all families to have two children. But many government planners are not sold on abolishing the one-child policy. Wang Pei’an, a deputy director at the National Health and Family Planning Commission, told reporters on 16 November that a baby boom from a universal two-child policy may hamper the country’s economic and social development by “bringing tremendous pressure on public services.” Some demographers suggest that fear is overblown. Wang estimates that if all couples were allowed to have two children in 2015, an additional 6 million babies a year would be born in the following 2 years. In that scenario, the population would peak by 2031 at 1.44 billion and decline to 1.39 billion in 2050. With China’s food security planning aiming to feed as many as 1.5 billion people by 2033, says Wang Feng, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine, a two-child policy would not overstress the system.

Yadan Ouyang writes for The Economist from Beijing.