China has ended its decades-old one-child policy and is allowing all couples to have two children, in an effort to tackle demographic woes and boost the country's long-term economic vitality.
"The historic change was intended to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population," said the Xinhua state news agency yesterday at the end of a closed-door meeting of top Chinese officials.
The spiking of the controversial policy that has limited millions of Chinese couples since 1979 to having one child was one of the few tangible outcomes of the four-day plenary session of the Communist Party's Central Committee.
Nearly 400 officials, led by President Xi Jinping, also finalised the 13th Five-Year Plan - a development guideline listing government tasks and targets in the 2016 to 2020 period - and set a "medium- high" annual growth rate for the world's No. 2 economy.
Declining birth rates, a widening gender imbalance, a shrinking workforce and an ageing society - all cited as side effects of the one-child policy - are threatening to impede China's economic transformation efforts and add to the government's economic burden.
The one-child policy was introduced to boost economic growth in China's early years of reform and opening up. It reportedly led to 400 million fewer births in the country over the years.
Many here welcome the move to scrap the policy, but some criticised the decision to set the cap at two children, saying this could allow officials to continue with draconian measures, such as forced sterilisation, to meet birth-control targets.
Mr William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said couples still had to seek government permission to have children. "Couples who want more than two children may have to pay fines and, in some cases, will still be forced to undergo coercive and intrusive forms of contraception and even forced abortions, which amounts to torture," he told The Straits Times.
Experts also said the move might be too late, given how an earlier liberalisation of the policy in December 2013 produced disappointing results. Couples were exempted from the one-child policy if either the husband or wife had no siblings.
Previously, only couples who were both from single-child families, or from rural households and ethnic minority groups, were exempted.
Out of some 11 million eligible couples under the liberalised rules, only one million applications were received last year, with 470,000 new births registered, far off the two million target. By May this year, 1.45 million applied to have a second child.
Observers say Chinese couples now prefer to have only one child because of the rising costs of raising children, the drop in infant mortality and lifestyle changes such as better education and job opportunities for women.
The new five-year plan will be endorsed at a national legislature session next March, where the growth target would be unveiled. It is expected to be below 7 per cent for the first time in a five-year plan for China since the late 1970s.