China’s three-child policy is an admission of failure

Updated on May 31, 2021 05:40 PM IST

The announcement seems driven less by giving people freedom of choice, and more by the challenges posed by a shrinking labour force and a fraying demographic structure. The increase in the ageing population has become an economic and social burden

China’s announcement that it will now permit couples to have three children is a major step for a country which, until 2016, implemented a coercive, often brutal, one-child norm. (File photo) PREMIUM
China’s announcement that it will now permit couples to have three children is a major step for a country which, until 2016, implemented a coercive, often brutal, one-child norm. (File photo)
ByHT Editorial

China’s announcement that it will now permit couples to have three children is a major step for a country which, until 2016, implemented a coercive, often brutal, one-child norm. The announcement seems driven less by giving people freedom of choice, and more by the challenges posed by a shrinking labour force and a fraying demographic structure. The increase in the ageing population has become an economic and social burden. These factors have a geopolitical impact too, for it will hamper China’s ambitions of becoming an economic and military superpower which can challenge the United States (US).

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Fertility rates in China have dipped to 1.3 children per woman in 2020 — India’s fertility rate is 2.3. This puts China on a par with ageing societies such as Japan and some European nations, but without their accumulated household wealth. But after first pushing couples to have only one child, China will now have to, at considerable economic cost, ramp up incentives to couples to have more children. Couples are reluctant for costs of living have increased. Many young women are unwilling to sacrifice career goals. And many couples, themselves single children, have the additional burden of being caregivers for their parents.

The median age in China today is 38.8 which will rise to 55-56 by 2050; for India, it is 29 now and will go up to 38; and for the US, it is 38 now and will be 44-45 by 2050. Engineering a baby boom after a history of Malthusian family planning will be no easy task. There is a lesson for India. At a time when there are calls to impose restrictions of family size as a way of addressing the population “problem”, China’s experience shows that it doesn’t work in the long-run.

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