Beijing (AFP) - China announced the end of its hugely controversial one-child policy on Thursday, after decades of strict, sometimes brutal enforcement left it with an ageing population and shrinking workforce that has heightened the challenges of slowing economic growth.
All couples will be allowed two children, the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing a communique issued by the ruling Communist Party following a four-day meeting in Beijing.
The historic change was "intended to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population", Xinhua said.
Campaigners welcomed the move, but stressed that a "two-child policy" still meant that China would retain population control mechanisms -- while demographic changes will take decades to have an effect, and previous loosenings led to fewer extra births than expected.
The policy, instituted in the late 1970s, restricted most couples to only a single offspring and for years authorities argued that it was a key contributor to China's economic boom and had prevented 400 million births.
It was enforced by a dedicated national commission with a system of fines for violators and often forced abortions, leading to heartrending tales of loss for would-be parents.
The policy led to sex-selective abortions or infanticide targeting girls, because of a centuries-old social preference for boys.
Rural families were already allowed two children if the first was a girl, while ethnic minorities were allowed an extra offspring, leading some to dub it a "one and a half child" policy.
As a result China's population -- the world's largest at 1.37 billion -- is now ageing rapidly, gender imbalances are severe, and its workforce is shrinking.
The concerns led to limited reforms in 2013, including allowing couples to have two children if either of them was an only child, but relatively few have taken up the opportunity.
Human rights organisations welcomed the change to the deeply unpopular policy, but expressed reservations about remaining controls.
It was "good news for the couples who wish to have a second child," Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch told AFP, but "the restrictions on reproduction rights remain in China".
Amnesty International's William Nee said on Twitter: "'Two Child Policy' won't end forced sterilisations, forced abortions, gov control over birth permits."
Chen Guangcheng, one of China's best-known activists who fled to the United States in 2012, said "everybody needs to be circumspect" about the announcement, stressing Beijing was retaining population controls.
"They're still maintaining strict control on something that should be everyone's right. They need to eliminate it entirely," Chen said.
- Vested interests -
The Communist leadership met in Beijing to discuss ways to put the country's stuttering economy back on a smooth growth path as it struggles with structural inefficiencies and outdated social policies.
Known as the fifth plenum, the conclave discussed the next Five-Year Plan for China -- the 13th since the People's Republic was founded in 1949.
Over four days of meetings the 205 members of the Central Committee, plus around 170 alternates, examined the specifics of the plan, which will be approved by the country's rubber-stamp legislature next year.
China has enjoyed a decades-long boom since the ruling party embraced market economics and opened up to the rest of the world from the late 1970s.
The process has transformed the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people and propelled the country to global prominence.
But growth has been slowing for several years, and analysts have long urged Beijing to embrace further liberalisation to avoid falling into the stagnation of the "middle income trap", when developing countries fail to fulfil their full potential.
The conclave said the economy would "maintain medium-high growth", and that China would reduce controls on "pricing products and services in competitive sectors", according to Xinhua.
Bureaucratic resistance and vested interests are strong in China, and the government has found it difficult to change the nation's course, even on issues where there is general agreement, such as family planning.
Yong Cai, a sociology professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and expert on the one-child policy, said the change announced Thursday was "at least 10 years later than it should be".
“But better than never,” he added.
- Intense pressures -
As the country has grown wealthier, couples have increasingly delayed having even one child as they devote more time to other goals, such as building their careers.
"There's a lot of opportunity cost to having children. The norm has changed to one or none," said Joan Kaufman, Director of the Columbia Global Centers East Asia and a long-time expert on China's population planning.
"I don't think you're going to see a massive unleashing of this pent-up desire for children."
The Chinese public met the announcement cautiously, with many saying the change would only add to the already intense social and financial pressures attached to reproduction.
"I will have four parents to take care of, along with two children," noted one online commenter. "This is too great a responsibility".
Wu Bohao, a 23-year-old single child, told AFP: "Raising a child is quite expensive. For me, having one kid would be enough."