China Pushes New Three Child Policy

By Claire Wilson 

April 6, 2024
Photo credit: Wang Jiaguo/Corbis

From 1979 to 2015, China promoted a one-child policy through propaganda, contraceptives, sterilizations, and brutal forced abortions. Those who violated the policy were subject to hefty fines and harassment by family planning officials. The policy was intended to control the population’s exploding growth after the Great Chinese Famine of the 1960s. Gradually, as population growth slowed, the government began to loosen restrictions, such as allowing couples to have two children if they are both only children. Finally, in 2015, the policy was overturned after more than three decades. But population growth continued to slow, and now, officials are worried about the growing elderly population - and the lack of young people to take care of them. 

Since the one-child policy’s enactment in 1979, it has been subject to backlash and protest. Couples in larger cities were generally compliant with the policy due to overcrowding and government incentives for those who signed single-child pledges. However, rural farmers were much less receptive. The loss of additional children as a source of farm labor heavily impacted rural families, especially those who counted on sons to inherit their farms. Many women who did not give birth to sons were abused by family members (typically husbands) and sex-selective abortions, and even infanticide, spiked. According to CBC News, “because of a traditional preference for baby boys over girls, the one-child policy is often cited as the cause of China's skewed sex ratio [...] Even the government acknowledges the problem and has expressed concern about the tens of millions of young men who won't be able to find brides and may turn to kidnapping women, sex trafficking, other forms of crime or social unrest.”

The sex ratio at birth China, males per 100 females, 1980–2010 (Source: Dudley L. Poston Jr, Eugenia Conde, and Bethany DeSalvo)

Since the original 1979 policy, Chinese population growth rate has steadily fallen. In 2022, it began to decline for the first time since the famine. With growing concerns over the elderly population, Chinese officials implemented a new three child policy in the hopes of encouraging Chinese families to have more children. If the population does not grow, many worry that there will not be enough people to take care of the growing elderly population. Isabelle Qian of the New York Times writes, “by 2040, nearly a third of its people will be over 60. The state will be hard pressed to support seniors, particularly those in rural areas, who get a fraction of the pension received by urban salaried workers under the current program.”

Like the original one-child policy, the new policy has been spread through propaganda, such as public service advertisements, and even beauty pageants for pregnant women. Relics of the old one-child policy, such as signs, posters, and murals, have gradually disappeared from public spaces, and been replaced with new pro-birth messaging. 

But the new three child policy has been received poorly by the Chinese public. As the cost of living continues to rise, having multiple children is now a luxury that many Chinese cannot afford, especially in urban areas. Although the government promises some financial assistance for those who have more children, “[critics] mocked the recent messaging for the obvious regulatory whiplash after decades of limiting births with forced abortions and hefty fines,” says Qian. In an interview with CNN, Chinese mother, Gan Yuyang, says, “nowadays young people have to buy a house. The amount of pressure is already huge. And then you have to consider the cost (of the child’s) education. I think this sort of policy will be difficult to implement.” 

In addition to rising housing costs, the cost of education has also risen steeply. Senqi Ma of The Center for Strategic and International Studies explains that “for families raising a child in Jing’an District of Shanghai from birth to middle school with an annual income of 50,000 RMB (about $7,700), expenditure on children accounts for 71.1 percent of annual income.”

This resistance from the Chinese to having more children than they can afford may have devastating consequences for the aging population. According to the CSIS’s ChinaPower website, “for a country whose economy remains reliant on affordable sources of labor to drive its manufacturing sector, China’s aging working population presents a serious economic problem. These shifts will lead to reduced productivity, and as China’s large surplus labor pool begins to dwindle, manufacturing wages will increase and the sector will decrease in profitability.” China’s industrial sector makes up 39% of its GDP, which is more than double that of the US. If China doesn’t find a way to boost its population, both their elderly and their economy will remain in jeopardy. 

"Strictly limit second births, totally eradicate third births" (Photo credit: Marie Mathelin/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
"To achieve “xiaokang,” three children is better than two" (Photo credit: local government of Bengbu, Anhui province)