China’s birth control policy, known as the one-child policy, was in operation for over three decades before recent reforms were made to allow couples to have up to two children. Even though it remained in principle a one-child-for-one-couple policy as advocated in the Communist Party’s Open Letter issued in 1980, the stringent one-child policy was relaxed to a 1.5-child-policy in the middle 1980s, as it was harshly deviant from China’s reality and encountered nationwide resistance. Generally, six provinces implemented the one-child policy for both urban and rural couples; nineteen provinces implemented a 1.5-child policy, that is, rural couples with a first girl were permitted to have a second child; and five provinces implemented two-children policy. With the birth control policy has come China’s low fertility level, falling below replacement level by the early 1990s. Subsequent 2000 and 2010 censuses indicated a total fertility rate of around 1.2 children per women, which were denied as seriously under-reported. Even being adjusted upward markedly, the total fertility rate was well below replacement level.

In recognition of the long-term consequences of lasting low fertility level, the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China decided in November 2013 to adopt a relaxed family planning policy that a couple in which one spouse was an only child would be eligible to have a second child. It was projected with the partial relaxation that around 10 million extra births would be born in the following five years. With a universal two-children policy extra births were projected to be in the tens of millions, placing too much pressure on the population situation. So the partial relaxation of allowing couples with either spouse being an only child to have a second child was adopted as a transient policy.

However, the implementation of this transition policy failed to produce the expected baby boom and fertility rebound, and refuted the concern about pressure on maternal medical service and population development by birth control relaxation. Though the official discourse denied the failure of this policy to increase fertility, the government hurriedly adopted a universal two-child policy beginning in 2016. Unfortunately, after a slight increase in 2016, the number of births decreased in 2017, causing hot debates and concerns about China’s fertility and fierce criticism of previous birth projections and policy suggestions. This decrease in birth numbers proves that, first, the fertility intentions and actual fertility behavior are very low in China. Young people are faced with pressure from high real estate prices, the labor market, rearing and educating children, and personal development. Second, the birth control policy, in operation even now, is actually in vain as most people intend to have only one or two children, averaging less than the universal two-children.

The country is embarrassed about policy prospects. First, as birth limits and sometimes coercive measures such as abortion of out-or-quota births and imposing social maintenance fees (fines for out-of-quota births) had been implemented, it would be embarrassed to adopt immediately a pronatalist policy. Second, the family planning system and cadres, especially those at the grassroots level, had devoted their life to birth controls, sometimes with coercive measures, and can’t accept the U-turn of this policy. Those in post have to change from dissuading people from having children to persuading people to give birth. Third, given the experience in developed countries that pronatalist policies and related financial assistance proved to be ineffective in increasing fertility, how can such measures work in China?

As the national policy still sets a limit of two children for one couple, provincial governments have attempted to encourage couples to have second children with concrete measures. Some national regulations such as extending maternal leave and increasing maternal insurance have been outlined with the adaptation of the universal two-children policy. In July 2018, Liaoning, whose population had declined successively for several years due to low fertility and emigration, issued the Population Planning of Liaoning Province (2016-2030) policy document, and stipulated concrete terms to raise fertility. In 2015 the total fertility rate was 0.9, and in response to the new policy it is expected to increase to 1.4 and 1.8 in 2020 and 2030 respectively. To achieve this, taxing, housing, education, and social security policies for childbearing families should be improved and perfected, and more awards should be bestowed to childbearing families. It is expected that this provincial pronatalist regulation will be followed by other provinces.

Side effects of China’s birth control policy, such as a low fertility rate, imbalanced sex structure, decline in the labor force, rapid ageing, and empty nest families, have emerged and have far-reaching effects on China’s sustainable development. The birth control policy, initiated to boost China’s economic development for the interest of the whole population, had been socially disruptive. To eliminate any limit on births and to adopt a pronatalist birth policy with various incentives to childbearing, like in those developed countries, is the best and urgent choice for China.