Demographics is destiny - even for China
A three decade old social experiment in China is ending as the government is dropping the one child per family policy in order to spur growth.
The change in policy, which came at the end of the Communist party Central Committee meeting, will allow families to have two children.
The controversial one-child policy was put in place in 1979 and aimed at cutting the country's birthrate and slowing the growth of its population, which at that point was already the world's largest. According to the government, some 400 million births have been prevented as a result.
Under current rules, couples who break the family planning laws face losing their jobs and being fined. In some cases, mothers have been forced to abort their babies or be sterilized.
An aging population and slowing economic growth rates fed calls to change the policy, and over time it was eased.
Rod Wye, associate fellow with the Asia program at London's Chatham House think tank, said the change was unlikely to result in a baby boom.
"It's a logical progression from the earlier decision to relax the policy for some," he said. "The policy is well past its use-by date — population growth is no longer a critical problem for China and the need for strict controls is long past."
He added: "The longer-term problem for China is the rather skewed structure of its age pyramid following on from big reductions in births in the 1970s and 1980s. We are coming to a time when there is a worsening ratio of old people dependent on others and those still in work. However, that's not going to be fixed by this announcement because the demographic impact is likely to be small."
Wye predicted that the change would be embraced "at an individual level," adding: "I don't think it's going to suddenly result in a huge number of babies being born."
Wang Feng, an expert on demographic and social change, told called the new rules an "historic event" but said that challenges remained.
"It's an event that we have been waiting for a generation, but it is one we have had to wait much too long for," he told Reuters. "It won't have any impact on the issue of the aging society, but it will change the character of many young families."
It seems unreal that a society of a billion people could regulate the size of families so completely. That was the advantage of having a Communist system of government. With oversight down to the smallest of communities, the party could enforce its will with threats of severe punishment.
State planners back in the early 1980's believed that population growth would overwhelm resources. Indeed, when 70% of the country was rural, the tradition of big families to work on the farm was threatening the future of the country.
China is less rural now, so they can afford a few more children. But the legacy of the one child policy will be hard to overcome as China struggles with the same problem of demographics facing western Europeans.