China will allow couples to have three children, loosening its historic family planning policies in the face of a looming demographic crisis just weeks after reporting that its population grew at the slowest rate in decades.

The Chinese Communist party’s politburo, which comprises its 25 most senior officials, concluded that the new “three-child policy” was intended to “actively address the ageing population, and maintain China’s natural advantage in human resources”, according to Xinhua, the state media agency. It was unclear when the policy would take effect.

Experts, the public and China’s central bank have called for the government to abolish birth limits entirely after the census published this month showed the population grew 5.4 per cent from 1.34bn in 2010 to 1.41bn in 2020 — the lowest rate of increase between censuses since the People’s Republic of China began collecting data in 1953.

But Beijing has been unwilling to break with the decades-old population control apparatus used to enforce a widely unpopular one-child policy, often employing brutal means, including forced abortions and sterilisations. Abolishing population controls would mean having to repurpose a huge part of its civil service, as well as suggest an embarrassing about-turn.

Demographers have said rising incomes, urbanisation and the increased costs of raising children had led to a long-term decline in fertility rates that would be extremely difficult to reverse. In the past five years, China’s official fertility rate has fallen sharply to 1.3 births per woman, one of the world’s lowest.

Column chart of Total (bn) showing China’s population is growing at its slowest rate in decades . . .

The one-child policy was introduced from 1979-80 as the population approached 1bn. The cap was lifted to two children in 2015 but the change had little impact on the birth rate.

As a result of the one-child policy, many Chinese children are in a so-called 4-2-1 family structure, meaning they will have to support four grandparents and two parents on one income. The UN projected that China’s old-age dependency ratio would double to more than 40 per cent by 2040, putting severe pressure on the pension system.

A rapidly ageing population will also shrink the labour pool, putting pressure on economic growth.

Experts said the decision to raise the cap to allow three children would not reverse the overall trend.

Column chart of Number of new births (m) showing . . . while birth rates in the country have fallen sharply

“The policy might be able to slightly slow, but cannot stop, the huge decline in births. It could bring a few tens of thousands of new births, while in recent years there has been a drop of 60-70,000 per year,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demographer at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think-tank.

Huang added that existing policies carried sufficient exemptions that nearly anyone who was not a government employee could already have three children — they simply did not wish to.

The government previously said it would provide more “appropriate support” for parents to help convince couples to have more children. Peng Xizhe, professor of demography at Fudan University in Shanghai, said this would probably mean help with early-age care and paternity leave.

“Opening up to three children on the one hand keeps in place the concept of population controls, while also letting people who want to have children realise that wish,” he said.

The announcement of the three-child policy was met with a swift backlash on social media, despite widespread censorship of government criticism, reflecting concerns that the measures would not address the underlying reasons why Chinese were not having more children.

“I recommend you first resolve the fundamental problems of child support plus . . . the unfair treatment of women in the workplace, before asking them to have children!” read the most-liked response under the Xinhua announcement on Weibo, the microblogging platform.

“So many of us were the only child in our generation. Back then [the government] fined us. Now they want us to raise four ageing parents plus three children . . . only in your dreams,” read another reply.

Additional reporting by Nian Liu and Xinning Liu in Beijing

Letter in response to this article:

China’s population is a topic that will not go away / From Professor Chris Rowley, Kellogg College, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK