Under the new loosening of China’s One Child policy married couples in which just one parent is an only child can also have a second baby. The previous rules allowed two children for couples in which both parents are only children. The old policy also made exceptions for China’s officially recognized ethnic minorities and rural couples whose first child was a girl or disabled.
The government estimates that the change will allow an additional 15 million to 20 million couples to expand their families, helping to stem a plummeting birthrate that experts say has left China with a dangerous demographic imbalance in both age and sex. But only about half of those couples are willing to have two children, according to research by the National Health and Family Planning Commission cited in state news media.
In interviews, many couples blamed the rising cost of living for their reluctance to have more than one child. Some cited a persistent cultural norm that requires husbands to provide an apartment, a car and other material riches to a bride, demands that can push an extended family deep into debt.
The changes, which were announced late last year, have been introduced in six provinces and regions, including Beijing, on Friday, with another 20 expected by the end of 2014.
But there are concerns over how effective the changes will be. On Monday, The Qianjiang Evening News, a state-run newspaper in the coastal province of Zhejiang, reported that one month after the province began a trial period for the new policy in three cities, only 300 applications for a second child had been received, far lower than expected.
China’s national health and family planning commission will study the impact of a universal two-child rule, its head of research, Ma Xu, told state news agency Xinhua, adding that there was no specific timetable for the decision.
“If the policy is introduced, the population would increase 10 million every year, which will put a lot of pressure on society.”
Ma Xu said the latest survey showed that 60-65% of people in urban areas able to have children and 90% in rural areas were willing to have a second child.
Many experts and officials have lobbied for a two-child rule, in some cases seeing it as a step towards ending birth control policies entirely. They argue China faces a demographic timebomb and many believe changes need to be made rapidly.
Zhang Chewei, a population expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it would take a year or two before the impact of the recent change was clear.
“But there is no doubt that the two-child policy will be completely opened in future,” he said.
Yuan Xin, a policy expert at Nankai University in Tianjin, said there were concerns that changing the rules too quickly could have a dramatic effect on the allocation of resources and economic development. “At present, we cannot skip to the stage of a two-child policy without any restrictions … However, our policy will be looser and looser,” he said.
Yuan said if the new rules had the effects predicted, a universal two-child policy could be expected after the current five-year plan ends in 2020. Further policy adjustments would be a matter for the next generation.
Du Peng, an expert on aging at Renmin University in Beijing, said a sudden opening of the policy might cause an abrupt increase in births.
He noted that a 2006 strategy paper on population set a goal of controlling the fertility rate at 1.8 until 2036.