BEIJING — China made its first major change to its "one-child policy" in nearly 30 years to grapple with a massive shift in its population toward the elderly, who cannot work and need support, say experts.
Introduced by the Communist Party in 1979, the policy was meant to help the impoverished country feed its people. China credits the policy with keeping family expenses down so parents could more easily raise their standards of living.
But China demographer He Yafu says that the policy threatens to harm stability because the segment of the Chinese population that is elderly is growing at a faster rate than previous years.
"The change of one-child policy and the labor camp system shows China's new leaders made a resolute decision to reform this time, which is better than the last group of leaders," says He, who referred also to the announcement that China will abolish penal colonies' use for political prisoners among others.
"The birth rate of most Chinese provinces, especially in coastal provinces, is actually very low," He said. "Many couples don't want to give birth to a second child because of the financial burden."
The changes to the one-child policy and labor camps were part of a key policy document released by the official Xinhua News Agency following a four-day meeting of party leaders through Tuesday in Beijing.
The labor camp — or "re-education through labor" — system was established to punish early critics of the Communist Party but now is used by local officials to deal with people challenging their authority on issues including land rights and corruption.
Luo Dongling, 42, a state worker from Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, welcomed the changes in the child policy.
"Some of my colleagues have been fired in previous years because they gave birth to more than one child," she said. "But people in my hometown still think boy is better than girl, so they would rather to sacrifice anything to have a baby boy, no matter the fine, or losing of a good job."
Traditionally in China, a son or daughter is often relied upon to provide material assistance to parents and grandparents.
China's family-planning policy currently limits most urban couples to one child and allows two children for rural families if their first-born is a girl. It also allows two children for parents who themselves are each an only child. The new policy will allow two children for families where only one parent was an only child.
The one-child policy is having a distorting effect on a modernizing society of 1.3 billion whose 194 million citizens over age 60 have few children to rely on for aid. China also needs more workers to maintain economic growth and generate tax revenues to care for a growing elderly population.
China's leaders have long held that enforcement of family size is necessary to lift the world's most populous nation out of decades of poverty. It was not always so.
The founder of the People's Republic of China, communist leader Mao Zedong, encouraged families to have many children as a way to build a prosperous nation. But in the late 1970s, the country's leaders believed that a growing population of impoverished citizens would impede economic development.
They imposed a strict "family-planning policy." Those who did not qualify for an exemption must pay a relatively expensive fine, or "social maintenance fee," to keep their child. Under such a policy, the world's most populous country aborts more pregnancies than any other nation.
In 2008, the last year in which abortion numbers were made available, 13 million abortions were done, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper. All Girls Allowed, a group that opposes forced abortions in China, estimates that 10% of all abortions in China are forced.
The group's name refers to the traditional preference among Chinese families for a boy, which meant that a disproportionate number of females are being aborted in China.
Last year, a government think tank urged China's leaders to start phasing out the policy and allow two children for every family by 2015, saying the country had paid a "huge political and social cost." The China Development Research Foundation said the policy had resulted in social conflict, high administrative costs and a long-term gender imbalance.
All Girls Allowed cited statistics that may have pushed the Communist Party to allow more births. By 2050, China's population will be declining by 20 million every five years, and one out of four people will be over the age of 65 it said.
China's elderly population is 11% of the population today; by 2050, it will be 31% of the population if the trend is not reversed, says the group.
Wang Xiaopeng, 29, manager of security office of a hotel in Beijing, said the policy change would probably not alter the plans of many people in China.
"This is a good policy. But my parents and I don't want to have a second child, because raising a child costs a lot in Beijing" he said. "One child is enough. If it's a girl, it's also good; I don't have to prepare an apartment for my son's wedding," he laughed.
Luo Dongling, who has twins, a boy and a girl, praised the change.
"I think everybody in China should have the right to have any number of kids," she said. "I feel so good to raise two children. Nowadays in China, the welfare of old people is not good."