In mid-August, a little more than five years after China announced the end of its controversial one-child policy, the country revised its family planning law to allow all married couples to have as many as three children.
The move came three months after the release of last year’s national census results, which showed worrying drops in fertility. In the early 1990s, under the influence of the one-child policy, China’s fertility rate fell below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman needed to maintain population stability, and it has continued to drop ever since. Despite a brief bump after the introduction of the two-child policy in 2016, the 2020 census found that China’s fertility rate has fallen to what demographers call the “lowest-low” level of 1.3 children per woman.
Likewise, women’s fertility intentions do not provide much cause for optimism. A national survey of nearly 190,000 women of reproductive age conducted in 2017 found that women intended to have an average of 1.75 children. Only about 9% of respondents said they intended to have three or more kids.
That is something the three-child policy is trying to change. For policymakers, it has become imperative to reverse the trend of falling fertility and boost births, but if the two-child policy is any indication, doing so will not be easy. Instead, a key goal of the revised law is to reset social norms by influencing individuals’ perceptions of the ideal family type.
For example, in Western societies, children who grow up without siblings have long been stereotyped as lonely, selfish, and socially awkward. Thus, having one child is often regarded as undesirable. Although single-child households are on the rise, it is still relatively uncommon for American women to stop at one. A recent Pew Research Center study found that the share of mothers aged 40 to 44 — roughly the end of their childbearing years — with one child was 22% in 2015, up from 11% in 1976.
In China, 86% of urban women aged 35 to 44 years in 2005 had only one child. Although controversial at first, the one-child policy has not only made single-child families common, but it has also helped normalize the idea that it is fine or even desirable to have only one child. As the cost of raising children increases and “intensive mothering” practices are more prevalent, many Chinese now believe it best for their children’s development if all the family’s resources can be concentrated on one child.
When it comes to changing family structures and reproductive behaviors, the sociologist Arland Thornton was spot-on when he declared that “ideas matter tremendously.” If the belief that having multiple children is what’s best for the family can achieve widespread societal acceptance, it will have a powerful motivating effect and guide couples’ fertility behaviors. Even if the three-child policy does not lead to an immediate jump in birth rates, it sends a signal: having three children can be a good and desirable family form.
Yet, even if the three-child policy successfully expands individuals’ understanding of what a family can be, fertility preferences only affect so much. We do not live in a vacuum. There are broader and more fundamental social and economic barriers to bearing and raising children that must be addressed.
It’s been five years since China implemented a universal two-child policy. Admittedly, the country’s fertility would be even lower if it were not for this policy shift, but the two-child policy’s positive effect on births lasted for only a short period of time. Much of that brief spike consisted of couples that already had a child and wanted a second but had been prevented from doing so by the previous policy.
One reason the bump was so short-lived is that just 27% of married women with one child plan to have a second child. Meanwhile, the increase in second births was greatest among women who were older, highly educated, and economically well-off. If larger families remain a luxury available only to a small group of elites, China is unlikely to get its fertility back to the replacement rate.
Ultimately, the relaxation of China’s restrictive family planning policies alone is unlikely to dramatically increase birth rates in the long run. That’s because these policies aren’t the driving force behind fertility decisions anymore. Especially since the 1990s, the forces driving fertility decline in China are similar to those found in developed countries: industrialization, the increased costs associated with raising children, and a lack of affordable childcare services.
More recently, these factors have been exacerbated in China by fierce competition in education, the rise of intensive mothering, and growing gender inequality that disadvantages women and mothers in workplaces and disincentivizes childbirth.
Thus, if policymakers truly want to enable a broad array of couples to be willing to have more children as well as able to afford to do so, they must first answer a series of practical questions: Who will take care of the children? Must the careers of parents, and in particular mothers, be sacrificed? And how can the normative standards of what it means to be a “good parent” be made more realistic? Although scholars raised similar points after the implementation of the two-child policy in 2016, few changes to the social safety net have been made over the past five years, and the persistent lack of needed infrastructure, such as publicly-funded, high-quality childcare facilities, continues to pose challenges for families.
This time may be different. Alongside the announcement of the three-child policy, the government has also proposed a host of supporting measures for families, including ensuring women’s equal rights in the labor market, increasing access to affordable childcare facilities, and reducing pressure and competition associated with children’s education.
It is these supporting measures, and not the three-child policy itself, that will determine the success of China’s next generation of family planning. Whether or not the government can follow through remains an open question, but at least it’s acknowledging that fertility decisions are determined by more than just how many children the government allows families to have.
This article was co-authored by Jin Yongai, an associate professor of demography at Renmin University of China.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Chongqing residents enjoy sunny weather, March 2021. Chen Yanglong/IC)