China's annual births have continued to plummet to a record low of 12 million in 2020 as the cost of living rises and women increasingly make their own family planning choices.
China has relaxed its family planning policy to allow couples to have three children after a census showed its population is rapidly ageing, state media reported, further unwinding four decades of controls in the world's most populous nation which have strangled the birthrate.
For almost 40 years, China enforced a controversial "one-child policy" – one of the strictest family planning regulations worldwide – which was relaxed in 2016 to a "two-child policy" due to widespread concerns over an ageing workforce and economic stagnation.
Despite government efforts to encourage couples to have children, China's annual births have continued to plummet to a record low of 12 million in 2020, the National Bureau of Statistics said last month.
That threatens a demographic crisis which has alarmed the ruling Communist Party headed by President Xi Jinping, booking in a shortage of young workers to drive an economy experts say by 2050 will have to support hundreds of millions of elderly.
READ MORE: Increasing cost of living mars China's baby boom
The "3-child policy" now approved for #China came after the easing off to the "2-child policy" didn't result in a big increase in birth rates. In fact, the recent census showed birth rates here at their lowest level since the 1960s.— Stephen McDonell (@StephenMcDonell) May 31, 2021
"To actively respond to the ageing of the population ... a couple can have three children," Xinhua said, citing a Monday meeting of China's elite Politburo leadership committee hosted by President Xi.
The policy change will come with "supportive measures, which will be conducive to improving our country's population structure, fulfilling the country's strategy of actively coping with an ageing population," Xinhua said.
Among those measures, China will lower educational costs for families, step up tax and housing support, guarantee the legal interests of working women and clamp down on "sky-high" dowries, it said, without giving specifics.
It would also look to educate young people "on marriage and love."
READ MORE: Chinese couples go abroad for fertility tourism
Slowing population growth sparks worry
China's fertility rate stands at 1.3 – below the level needed to maintain a stable population, the National Bureau of Statistics revealed.
The once-in-a-decade 2020 census results published last month also showed that China's population grew at its slowest rate since the 1960s, reaching 1.41 billion.
It comes alongside a sharp drop in the number of working-age people, once again raising fears of a looming demographic crisis.
China's gender balance has also been skewed by decades of the one-child policy, and a traditional social preference for boys which prompted a generation of sex-selective abortions and abandoned baby girls.
READ MORE: How the receding global population could affect the world
Although the policy has been relaxed in the last few years, this has not prompted a baby boom as policymakers had hoped.
Falling marriage rates in recent years have played out in slower birth rates, as have rising costs of living and increasingly empowered and educated women delaying or avoiding childbirth.
The demographic shift in China has significant economic and political implications for the world's second biggest economy.
A third of Chinese are forecast to be elderly by 2050, heaping huge pressure on the state to provide pensions and healthcare.