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China takes another baby step toward ending birth limits

Beijing gives three provinces the green light to explore lifting cap on family size

A baby inside a stroller in Shanghai: China faces a demographic crisis unless it can raise its birthrate.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- China is showing greater urgency on its looming demographic crisis, moving to let three northeastern provinces look into scrapping restrictions on how many children a woman can bear in her lifetime.

Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang will be able to study removing birth limits, the National Health Commission said Thursday. The research could lead to pilot programs to adjust policies on family planning.

China's old one-child policy was instituted around 1980 amid overpopulation fears. It became a victim of its own success, with a shrinking working-age population dragging down the potential economic growth rate and creating concerns over a strained social safety net.

The government shifted course in 2016 with a two-child policy to stabilize the population. The number of births rose that year but has since declined.

China's birthrate -- the number of births divided by the total population -- came to 1.048% in 2019, the lowest on record since the 1949 founding of the People's Republic.

The full, official tally of annual births is expected to shrink once again in data to be announced as early as spring. But household registration records, a slightly different measure, show that the number of newborns sank 15% last year.

Birthrates in Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang are the lowest among China's 31 provinces and provincial-level cities, with the trio ranging from 0.645% to as low as 0.573%.

Even if the provinces scrap their limits, it is unclear whether their populations will stop shrinking. The National Health Commission believes that married couples in northeastern China are disinclined to have children because they worry about the financial burden and the wives' job security.

In response, experts are being assembled by the provinces to analyze economic and social factors in advance of any policy changes. They will also make population estimates for after birth restrictions are lifted and to see what child support measures will be needed.

The removal of birth restrictions is only at the planning stage, with no concrete schedule decided yet.

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