China is one in a long list of countries facing a demographic crisis because birth rates are dropping while the population is aging.
Japan, Germany, Russia, Italy and countless others are worried that their work force is shrinking and that there won't be enough working-age people to support a growing population of elderly.
Those countries, however, never limited the number of children women could have. But China, for four decades, has had a one-child policy. Now it is allowing couples to have two.
But unlike Russia and Germany that offer cash rewards and extended family leave, China is not offering any financial incentives to make more babies.
Chinese families may be reluctant to have more children, especially as more are leaving economically strapped rural areas and heading to urban centers.
“Many people in the field feel that it will not have many impacts,” said Carl Haub, senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. “Most Chinese don’t want to have too many children because raising them would be expensive.”
China's restrictions were eased once before in 2013, when the government approved allowing couples to have two children if one of the spouses was an only child. The high cost of raising children stopped many Chinese couples from taking advantage of the new law.
Two-job households are becoming more common in China, said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C.
More importantly, she said, “There are no indications that the latest policy ends the intrusive surveillance of women’s reproductive habits. The state is now saying we’ll let you have two instead of one. We will still find you if you have more than that. We will still harass you.”
Parents who violated the one-child rule were often denied access to public services, Richardson said, and the same will happen to those who have more than two children.
it's not clear if the new policy will slow the flow of asylum seekers escaping the child restrictions.
“While the change is a positive step, nobody would see this as real respect for reproductive freedom,” she said.
There are 118 boys born to every 100 girls born in China, Haub said, and projections show that 20 million men of marrying age will not find a wife. There are fewer wives and fewer women to make babies.
The shortage of women is so dire that men physically fight over women.
“When I was in China, one of the things that I used to see pretty regularly were fights breaking out between Chinese men and expat (foreign) men who were with Chinese women,” said Seth Kaplowitz, international business law professor at San Diego State University. “There were not enough women to go around.”
That dearth encouraged the trafficking of women from other Asian countries, Richardson said.
Demographers and economists are skeptical that the change will pull China out of its economic doldrums. Third-quarter numbers showed the nation’s economic growth was the slowest since the worldwide economic crisis six years ago.
Kaplowitz said at least one industry will benefit from the new rule: Baby products manufacturers. “That industry will get a boost,” he said.