China's two-child policy is beginning to take effect, with the number of live births of 18.46 million last year the highest since 2000, but more will be done to encourage couples to have children, the country's family planner has said.
The figure represents an uptick of the fertility rate to 1.7 from the average of 1.5-1.6 during 2010-2015, said Mr Wang Peian, Vice-Minister of the National Health and Family Planning Commission. This is about two million more than the annual average number of births for that period.
"These figures show that the effect of the implementation of a comprehensive two-child policy is quite obvious and quite optimistic," he said at a press conference on the sidelines of the ongoing annual parliamentary session.
However, in an indication that the government wants to boost the birth rate, he added that his agency will be working with other ministries to build an environment that is conducive to child-bearing and child-rearing.
China implemented a full two-child policy in January last year after decades of a draconian one-child policy, which was introduced in 1979 to control population growth at a time when the country was impoverished and just embarking on economic reforms.
In 2013, as China grappled with an ageing population and falling birth rates, it reversed course and relaxed the one-child policy to allow couples to have a second child if one of them is an only child.
However, this move did not lead to a visible improvement in the fertility rate.
Yesterday, Mr Wang cited a study that showed three key factors affecting Chinese couples' decisions on whether to have children.
These were women's career development and the issue of re-employment after childbirth; difficulties faced in bringing up children, particularly the lack of childcare facilities for children under three so that often grandparents had to be roped in to take care of young children; and economic pressures.
Among the measures he said the government would be looking at to address the people's concerns over child-rearing are protection of women's employment rights, extension of maternity leave and setting up a system of paternity leave.
It would also give priority in the allocation of public service resources to maternal and child healthcare, childcare as well as pre-school, primary and secondary education.
Yesterday's press conference also addressed China's healthcare issues, including reforms - such as development of a family doctor system - to make it easier for people to seek medical treatment that is also affordable.
China's healthcare system has come under pressure caused by an ageing population, growing urbanisation and proliferating lifestyle diseases, among other things, according to experts.