Why China finally scrapped its controversial one-child policy

Couples will now be allowed to have up to two children – but many doubt it will lead to a baby boom

(Image credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images )

China has decided to abandon its one-child policy amid growing fears that it will be unable to support its ageing population.

Couples will be allowed to have two children for the first time in decades after the Communist Party announced plans to end the controversial policy.

However, no further details have been released, no timeframe has been announced and it is not clear if families will be restricted to a maximum of two children.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The one-child policy was first implemented in 1979 to curb the country's rapid population growth and is estimated to have prevented about 400 million births.

It has been condemned both at home and abroad, with the Financial Times describing it as "one of the most draconian social experiments in modern history".

The human cost of the policy has been "immense," says The Guardian. Women have been forced to undergo sterilisation and abortion, female babies have been killed and a dramatic gender imbalance means between 20 and 30 million men will never be able find female partners.

"This latest announcement formally ends the life of the longest and most costly birth control policy in human history. However, it came too late," said demographer Wang Feng.

"Chinese society as a whole will continue to bear the consequences for decades to come."

The rules have finally been abandoned, not as a result of pressure from human rights groups, but because a shrinking labour force is threatening the country's future growth.

The policy has created a ticking timebomb. The UN estimates that China will have 440 million people over the age 60 by 2050 while the working age population continues to fall.

But experts caution that the change is unlikely to have a significant effect on population size due to the soaring costs of raising a child, particularly in urban areas.

"Just because the government says you can have another child, it doesn't mean the people will immediately follow," said Liang Zhongtang, demographer at the Shanghai Academy of Social Science.

And even though the policy has been scrapped, women's bodies will continue to be policed by the government. "As long as the quotas and system of surveillance remains, women still do not enjoy reproductive rights," Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch told AFP.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.