Chinese health authorities deny planning to end birth control restrictions

Scrapping the one-child policy in 2015 has failed to arrest the demographic decline.
PHOTO: Reuters

China’s top health authority has denied that it will lift birth control restrictions in the northeast of the country.

Last week, the National Health Commission triggered speculation it was going to end limits on the number of children families could have in three provinces – Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin – after it said it would allow them to experiment with new policies to reverse the region’s population decline .

But on Saturday (Feb 20) it issued a clarification saying that was the wrong interpretation of its comments and it was “not the [NHC’s] intention”.

“We believe that there are various reasons behind the long-term population decrease in the northeastern area and it’s not an issue that can be solved solely by lifting birth restrictions,” it said in the latest statement.

“The suggestion to cancel restrictions in the northeast needs comprehensive and thorough study.”

The National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislature which holds its annual meeting next month, had asked the commission to respond to a proposal to drop limits on family sizes in the region.

The commission’s response published on Wednesday (Feb 17), which said the provinces could adopt new policies after carrying out more research, was widely interpreted by newspapers and members of the public as a sign that Beijing was considering dropping its notorious birth control policies.

China ended its one-child policy in 2015 and started allowing all couples to have two children, but the relaxation has failed to stop the decline in birth rates .

The government already allows some border towns and cities in Heilongjiang, the northernmost province, to permit three-child families.

Last year, Liaoning’s vice governor Chen Xiangqun, who is also a delegate to the NPC, tabled a proposal that the northeastern rust belt, should become the first region to drop the restrictions because its population has been falling for two decades.

He also called for more central government investment in childcare and preschool education.

The health commission’s response said the northeast’s demographic decline was a result of systematic problems involving not just public policy, but also economic trends and industrial decline.

When it came to easing birth restrictions, it noted that the policy would have a limited impact on fertility rates, adding: “We believe the northeastern region can make its own investigations based on local realities.”

The northeastern provinces, which kick-started China’s industrialisation in the 1950s, now have the lowest birth rates and the greatest economic burden from caring for the elderly in China.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.