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Abolishing one-child policy will not bring immediate change, experts say

Previous easing of ban did not lead to baby boom, with couples facing intense competition for schools and housing

Academics and Communist Party elites have been pushing for years for Beijing to relax its 39-year-old one-child policy, saying the change would boost China’s economy and help change the demographics of its rapidly aging population. But other experts say it will take more than just a new two-child policy, announced Thursday, to get Chinese parents to have more than one child.

“This is a timely change,” University of Macau sociology professor Xu Jianhua told Al Jazeera. “It comes earlier than expected, but scholars have called for it for a long time.”

First enforced in 1976 under the administration of Deng Xiaoping, who is credited with modernizing the Chinese economy, the one-child policy meant that urban couples from China’s majority Han ethnicity could have only one child or face fines. Some rural and ethnic minority families, who rely on their children to support them in old age, were allowed to have more than one child.

Two generations of one-child families have created an aging population. The state-run news agency Xinhua reported in August that by the end of 2014, 16 percent of China’s population — 212 million people — were older than 60, and that number is expected to grow by 10 million people annually in the coming years. 

The new policy hopes to change that.

"China will allow all couples to have two children, abandoning its decades-long one-child policy," said a press release on a four-day meeting of the ruling Chinese Communist Party obtained by Al Jazeera Thursday.

Academics who have long called for the relaxation of the one-child policy celebrated a victory in November 2013, when the party changed the rule to allow couples to have two children if one of the parents was an only child.

Peking University social policy professor Xiong Yuegen told Al Jazeera in 2013 the effect of ending the policy would be profound. “First, it will stimulate consumption and service development related to childbearing and child care in the short run,” he said. “Second, it will provide more laborers to be ready for future economic activities in the long run, which will partially ease the pressure of pension reform.”

But the anticipated baby boom may not arrive a quickly as some hope. One-child families have become the norm, especially among urban professionals struggling with high real estate costs and intense competition for jobs, housing and spots at top schools for their children. Xu noted that even after the 2013 easing of the one-child policy, few couples who were eligible to have two children chose to do so. China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission anticipated that 18 percent of eligible couples would apply for an extra child, but only 6 percent did, according to the results of a December 2014 study.  

“To some extent, it may alleviate the serious aging problem or delay it to some extent,” Xu said. “But the low birthrate will be a norm along with China's modernization.”

Chinese lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng, who spent four years under house arrest for advocating against the forced abortions sometimes used to implement the one-child policy, called the measure “too little, too late.” He escaped his sentence in 2012 and has been in the United States since April of that year. He is now a fellow with the socially conservative, anti-abortion Witherspoon Institute, based in Princeton, New Jersey. 

While the new policy may mean relatively fewer forced and gender-selective abortions, Chen said, “family planning policy still continues to restrict the number of births.”

“If there’ll be any effect on the population, they won’t see it until decades down the line,” he said. “China needs to end its entire family planning policy.”

Ending the one-child policy now also will do little to help families who are suffering the consequences of the previous policies. Shanghai-based blogger Edward Du described to Al Jazeera the situation he said was faced by one of his cousins in northern China, who has a young daughter who remains without hukou, or residency documents, because she is his family's third child.

“Not sure the new law will solve his problem,” Du said. 

People without a residency document for their second child need to apply for special documentation to allow their children to attend local schools, a problem that will affect them until graduation. A 2013 report from UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, said that 12.68 million people below the age of 17 do not have hukou. “Most of the population without a registered residence appeared to be young children born outside of the family planning policy, who were not registered with a hukou,” the report said.

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