BEIJING – China’s Communist Party on Thursday officially ended its policy that limited most families to a single child, an acknowledgment that the 1970s population-control measure was outdated, was holding back economic growth and had distorted China’s demographics in ways that could hurt the party’s long-term hold on power.
Some experts were surprised by the suddenness of the decision — a dramatic step away from a core Communist Party position of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who imposed the policy in the late 1970s.
However, the problems caused by the one-child policy have been apparent for many years. With so many families limited to a single child, China’s labor force is shrinking and working people without siblings are struggling to care for their aging parents.
Moreover, the policy has contributed to a surplus of men, partly because of a patriarchal tradition of favoring male children. That means an excess of young males with no marriage prospects — a formula for potential unrest and chaos of the kind party leaders fear most.
“Certainly the Communist Party for many years said that the sex-ratio imbalance is a severe societal problem,” said Leta Hong Fincher, a Hong Kong-based sociologist who specializes in Chinese policy toward women and families. “They have been talking about loosening the policy for years. Still, I am surprised they did this without a more gradual step. It suggests they felt they needed to move rapidly because of the demographic crisis.”
Even with the lifting of the one-child rule, the Communist Party hasn’t completely gotten out of the business of dictating reproductive decisions. Under the new policy, announced in a party communiqué late Thursday, married couples nationwide will be allowed to have two children, but no more.
It also appears the party will not immediately loosen restrictions on single women having children, a sore point for the country’s feminists.
China eased some restrictions in the one-child policy in 2013, allowing couples to have two children if one of the spouses was an only child. But many eligible couples declined to have a second child, citing the expense and pressures of raising children in a highly competitive society.
China introduced its one-child policy in 1978, two years after the death of Mao Zedong, who throughout his rule had encouraged large families. By the late 1970s, the party was growing increasingly concerned about the population’s strain on resources. The program went into effect two years after it was announced.
Experts are divided on how effective the one-child rule has been stabilizing China’s population of nearly 1.4 billion. The policy was unevenly enforced, with exemptions and loose oversight for ethnic minorities and rural farmers.
Even so, implementation of the policy created hardships and heartbreaks for many. Government regularly fined and ostracized families breaking the rules. In one of its most controversial aspects, local officials forced an uncounted number of women to undergo abortions, often late in pregnancy.
Because of cultural pressures to create male heirs, many families gave up their daughters for adoption — filling Chinese orphanages with female toddlers and fueling what became a generation of China-born adoptees in the United States and elsewhere.
The New York Times contributed to this report.