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As China's Birth Rate Drops, Couples May Now Have 3 Children

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

China's ruling Communist Party says married couples in that country may now have three children. This is a change because for decades, the world's most populous country had a one-child policy limiting most urban couples to a single child. It did expand to two kids in recent years, and now three, as China faces a possible demographic calamity. David Rennie is the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist and joins us via Skype. Welcome back to the program, David.

DAVID RENNIE: Hello.

INSKEEP: What is that demographic calamity?

RENNIE: We've just heard the results of a 10-year census, and it showed what was absolutely very clear, which is that the country has been aging very, very fast. And what's more, the fertility rate has crashed to 1.3 births per woman over the course of her life, which is one of the lowest rates in the country. And you can see that all around you.

And one of the tragedies of this policy that lasted - the one-child policy, as you say, that lasted from 1980 to 2016 - is, it - like all social engineering, it was tremendously cruel, but it didn't even really achieve what it set out to achieve, which was to create a kind of modern country full of these kind of small families. It's actually created a skewed and distorted population that's going to make it even harder for China to try and stave off that demographic calamity.

INSKEEP: And now they're moving to three children. But I wonder if there's a problem here. They moved to two children a few years ago, and I gather people did not suddenly start having two children. What problems are there besides the policy that limit people who want to have larger families?

RENNIE: So that's right. That's what I talk about. It basically skewed the population. So lots and lots of countries, when they get richer and more educated and people move into cities, their birth rates go down. And that happened in lots of Asian countries, including in China. But China got there in this fantastically cruel and social-engineered way.

So some of the weird things we have is, 150 million families with only one child then are reaching kind of marriage age. They have four grandparents, two children married, and they're thinking, you want us to have three children when we've got four grandparents to cope with? It's - life is very stressful for many people in Chinese cities. They have to spend a lot of money on tutors to try and get them through the exams to get into a good school. It's a very competitive, kind of driven, rat race culture in a lot of Chinese cities. And you're seeing this tremendous pushback at the announcement of this policy saying, you know, it's just a joke to imagine that people can have three children, let alone two.

And the other tragedy is that for decades, when the one-child policy was in place, there were selective abortions of girls. The birth rate remains horribly skewed in favor of boys over girls. So there are 30 million missing women, which is another reason why it's going to be so hard to get out of this demographic hole.

INSKEEP: Even to people who were - there was an enormous number of children who were abandoned, who were given up for adoption, who ended up being placed for adoption overseas - listening to you talk and realizing this one-child policy must have, in one way or another, affected just about everybody in China, a country of way over a billion people.

RENNIE: That's right. It was just unbelievably intrusive. This is my second China posting. The first time I was here 20 years ago, you know, you could go to villages where people were either paying huge fines for having kids or had their houses knocked down by officials to punish them. You'd have a blackboard in the village with the menstrual cycles of all the women in the village written on it to show people, you know, who is having a baby. It was unbelievably intrusive, cruel. Tens of millions of forced abortions and it didn't work.

INSKEEP: And now China tries something else. They go from two children up to three children now in the allowable number of children a family for a married couple. David, thanks very much.

RENNIE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: David Rennie is The Economist bureau chief in Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.