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A mother and her child play on a slide at Wukesong shopping district in Beijing. China has relaxed its family planning policy to allow couples to have three children after a census showed its population is rapidly aging.NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

China will allow its people to have three children, yet another relaxation of its family planning policies as the country’s population growth slows.

Not only will Beijing now allow larger families, China’s ruling Politburo, in a meeting Monday, endorsed a raft of changes to make having children more attractive to young people, many of whom worry about the cost of additional children. It called for authorities to establish universal child care, reduce educational costs, enhance maternity leave, provide more supportive tax policies and even control what it called bad marital practices and the high cost of gifts for new brides – seen as an obstacle to marriage.

China’s leaders also pledged to further raise mandatory retirement ages – to keep older people working – and “vigorously promote the traditional virtues of filial piety and respect for the elderly,” state media reported.

China 2020 census shows population growth slipped to lowest ever

After decades of intrusive controls on reproduction, China abandoned its one-child policy in 2015, allowing families to have at least two children. The policy change prompted a small surge in births the following year, but the annual birth rate has subsequently continued to slide. China’s 12 million births last year were the fewest on record since 1961.

The most recent census, released in mid-May, showed that China’s population continues to grow but at an increasingly slow pace. Aging demographics threaten the country’s ability to maintain its pace of economic expansion, which was founded in part on a youthful and abundant population. Now, an increasingly imbalanced age structure, with the older generation growing rapidly as births decrease, stands to put new pressures on a social welfare system that is not yet fully developed.

A children's play area at a restaurant in Beijing on June 30, 2018.GILLES SABRIE/The New York Times News Service

“Demographic trends spell the end of the Chinese Dream,” said Jiang Xueqin, a Beijing-based researcher who studies Chinese schools.

But in a country where big-city real estate prices have far outstripped salaries, persuading young people to have bigger families has proven difficult.

“Young people, especially young women, do not want to have children,” Mr. Jiang said. “From a macroeconomic perspective, it is too costly and punitive.”

The census showed a 5.38-per-cent increase in the population over the previous decade, the slowest growth rate since modern China’s first census, in 1953. The country’s birth rate has fallen to levels seen in other rapidly aging countries such as Japan.

But China’s efforts to promote larger families coincide with a much more harsh application of family planning laws in its northwestern Xinjiang region, where sterilization rates have rapidly increased among the predominantly Muslim Uyghur population. Women have been ordered to provide authorities with quarterly updates on their pregnancy status by submitting ultrasound scans and urine tests. Officials there have told Uyghur women that they must secure government permission before becoming pregnant, even if they have only one child and are legally entitled to more. China has rejected accusations from parliamentarians in several countries – including Canada – that its Xinjiang policies amount to genocide.

Chinese officials have been critical of birth rates among Uyghurs – with the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., once referring to Uyghur women as “baby-making machines” – and scholars say Beijing wants to maintain control of populations it sees as irresponsible when it comes to having children.

Though many have called for the complete abolition of family planning in China, “if it is completely liberalized, it will cause some people to have unlimited children,” said Zhou Haiwang, deputy director of the Institute of Population and Development at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

The three-child policy “can basically satisfy the reproductive desire of most families without causing too much risk of over-birth,” he said. Indeed, “many families are unwilling to have two children.”

If China is to succeed in persuading people to have more children, he said, other policies are far more important. He pointed to the cost of housing as the biggest source of stress for many Chinese families – and no longer just in big cities. Efforts to curb the cost of housing in recent years have been only marginally successful.

Still, Mr. Zhou said the Politburo’s calls for broader societal changes, beyond allowing a third child, are cause for optimism.

“The country has, with unprecedented courage, emphasized the importance of supportive policies to promote fertility for the first time,” he said. “This should be able to play some role.”

The societal and economic pressures of having children in China are considerable. Women in China are entitled to just 14 weeks of maternity leave, with fathers usually receiving only two weeks. In Shanghai, the average cost of raising a child is almost $160,000, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences reported in 2019, and does not include the price of real estate in the best school districts.

Other burdens can be equally great. In 2016, elementary and middle-school children in Shanghai spent an average of almost three hours on homework per day.

Bao Hui, 33, a marketing specialist in Shanghai, has one daughter. But “raising just this one child is burning us out, me and my husband,” she said. She once contemplated a second, until she realized that “the resources we have are barely enough for just one.” She is now determined to have no more and dismisses the government’s attempts to encourage larger families as insufficient.

For her to have a second child, only one thing would help: more money.

“I know it sounds tacky, but this is the most fundamental concern for our family,” she said. She loves children. “If I won the lottery, I would have more right away. But at the moment, our economic situation has made me give up. Because in this situation, bringing children into the world is irresponsible and unwise.”

Others still hold out hope for larger families.

“Money could be an issue. But if I marry a rich husband, I’m probably going to have three kids,” said Carrie Liu, 27, a young professional who lives in Beijing. She is single and has no children, but recalls the loneliness of her own upbringing as a single child. One day, she hopes, she can provide her own children with siblings.

Then again, if she does have children, she won’t be eager to keep them in China.

“Because the competition is crazy here,” she said. Better to send children abroad, where the cost of education isn’t much higher than in China.

“Living abroad, he or she could receive a better education and live freely,” Ms. Liu said. They “can have prom in high school, and for me, that’s amazing. I never had that. I worked my butt off when I was in high school and I was miserable.”

With reporting from Alexandra Li

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