China has ended its one-child policy, saying Thursday the controversial approach to population control will be relaxed to allow all couples to give birth to two children.

The change was announced in one line inside a broader document outlining plans for China’s 13th five-year plan released early Thursday evening, capping a tumultuous era of coercive family planning that often horrified the outside world.

“This is a big breakthrough for rational policy making, and also of course for respect for human rights,” said Willy Lam, a China expert who is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.

Enacted in 1980, enforcement of the one-child policy was the strictest and most long-standing of a series of efforts to put a cap on China’s burgeoning population. Those efforts brought hardship to huge numbers of Chinese homes, through forced contraception and abortions that stained the country’s human rights record. From 1971 onward, China conducted 336 million abortions, completed 196 million sterilizations, and inserted 403 million intrauterine devices.

The one-child policy was initially intended to prevent over-population. But it has created a deeply skewed demographic curve for China, which now faces a large and fast-greying population and far fewer young people to support the old. By 2030, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences expects China to be the greyest society on Earth: Today, the country counts almost five taxpayers for each person drawing a pension; by 2030, the ratio will fall to roughly 2:1.

Economic reasons have pushed China to loosen the policy, and in 2013 it allowed two children for any couple where either the mother or father is a single child. Before, both parents were required to be single children. That change, however, produced roughly half the new births officials had expected, as a young generation of Chinese forgoes larger families, often because raising a child in modern China can carry a heavy cost.

In Shanghai today, the average fertility rate is 0.7, far below the 2.1 rate that is needed to maintain a population.

China’s workforce is already falling, shedding 2.44-million people in 2013. The country’s population is expected to peak in 2026.

The enactment of a two-child policy is “better late than never,” Mr. Lam said, but some of China’s future already appears set in place by the children its policies kept from birth. “Society is greying much faster than they had anticipated, so the tax burden on workers and employees in the coming 10, 20 years will be very high.”

China has claimed that its one-child policy spared 400 million births, but demographers have said most of the reduction in child-bearing rates happened before the policy was enacted. The one-child policy itself may have prevented 100 million births.

In a recent paper, demographers Wang Feng, Yong Cai and Baochang Gu concluded that history will “likely view this policy as a very costly blunder.”

Moving to a two-child policy suggests China will continue to control child-bearing, and the document outlining discussion at the plenary session for the 13th five-year plan noted that the country will pursue “balanced development” of its population, while also working to address its aging population.

No other details were provided Thursday, including what China will do with the millions of second children it has refused to provide with the trappings of citizenship unless their parents pay substantial fines that many cannot afford.

Mr. Lam said the desire to hold back the population is deeply-rooted in the Chinese mentality. “Feeding the population has always been a huge challenge, and many old dynasties collapsed because they failed to feed all of the people adequately,” he said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015 7:01AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015 8:57AM EDT