China will probably introduce an overall two-child policy in one or two years, senior demographers expect, as the top population authority said the government would keep fine-tuning birth rules to ensure a sustainable and balanced population growth.
Yang Wenzhuang, director of the family planning grassroots guidance department under the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said the relaxation of the family planning policy in 2013, which allows couples with one spouse being an only child to have a second child, helped lay a solid foundation for future adjustments to the birth rules.
The number of couples who qualify is about 11 million, with nearly 70 per cent of them born after 1980, Yang said.
Largely due to the policy relaxation, China had 16.8 million new births last year, 470,000 more than 2013, statistics from the National Health and Family Planning Commission show.
Yang expected a bigger increase this year.
"That helps decision-makers make more precise demographic development forecasts and buys more time for socioeconomic and infrastructure preparation to welcome more babies," Yang said at a news conference on Friday.
However, more adjustments are required to "address a major demographic challenge facing the nation: that problems in the population structure, particularly rapid aging, affect economic growth," he added.
By the end of last year, China had 915.8 million workforce-age people from 16 to 59, which was a decline of 3.71 million from the previous year and the third decline in a row.
Lu Jiehua, a professor of social sciences at Peking University, warned that the nation would become a "super aging society" by 2035, when two working people will support one elderly resident and economic growth would be seriously affected due to labour shortages.
"With full recognition of the sheer challenge, China will in one or two years allow all couples to have a second child," he said.
Chen Jian, former information department director of the top population authority and a population scientist, agreed and projected a change even sooner. "I think we'll see that next year," he said.
Both of them agreed that policy relaxation would help China slow its aging trend, but it's hard to change people's perception of reproduction.
More people nowadays prefer small families, said Lu. Other factors such as finances, housing, education and age are also involved in making birth plans.
Official statistics show that only 1.07 million out of the 11 million eligible couples applied to have a second child by the end of last year.
The idea of more children is more popular in western China and small cities than in coastal regions and large cities.