Married couples in China can now have up to three children, marking an end to the country’s two-child policy.
Thew news came on Monday, according to the New York Times, as part of renewed efforts to address declining birthrates and a shrinking labor pool. “Renewed” because the Chinese government had hoped that increasing the limit to two, which it did in 2015, would be enough to incentivize couples to have children and remedy the economic problems that often accompany low birthrates.
But it’s proving difficult to undo the harm done by the country’s longtime one-child policy, which was in place for 35 years. As Ellie Shechet wrote for Jezebel in 2018, when China was considering lifting all birth limits, the policy “accelerated an aging population, created a massive gender imbalance, and provoked human rights violations like forced abortions, forced sterilizations, infanticide and government-sanctioned child abductions.”
And it turns out people need incentives to have children beyond mere permission. From the Times:
People in China have responded coolly to the party’s earlier move, in 2016, to allow couples to have two children. To them, such measures do little to assuage their anxiety over the rising cost of education and of supporting aging parents, made worse by the lack of day care and the pervasive culture of long work hours.
Accordingly, this time China has promised to expand maternity leave and workplace protections for pregnant people. (Though only if they’re married—single women are still excluded from many of these reproductive health benefits.)
Still, it’s unlikely these (meager) perks—which should in fact just be universal rights—will be enough to alter people’s family planning: “Merely opening up the policy to three children and not encouraging births as a whole, I don’t think there will be a significant increase in the fertility rate,” He Yafu, an independent Chinese demographer, told the Times. “Many people don’t want to have a second child, let alone a third child.”
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because economists and panicked conservatives have been having a similar conversation about falling birthrates in the United States, though, for the latter group, it’s usually absent any considerations as to why it can be untenable to raise children here. As dire as the need is in the U.S. for paid family leave and socialized childcare, it also remains the case that fixing these things alone may not be enough to significantly increase birthrates; fertility rates have been dropping even if countries where there is extensive government support for new parents. The reasons people decide to have children or not are structural, but only up to a point.
“No matter how many babies they open it up to, I’m not going to have any because children are too troublesome and expensive,” Li Shan, a 26-year-old based in Beijing, told the Times. “I’m impatient and worried that I won’t be able to educate the child well.”