There has been speculation for several months that the new leaders in China would ease restrictions on the birth rate and, as I noted a few days ago, this is indeed the new policy. Although the New York Times story seems to see this as a major breakthrough, the new policy is an expansion of the rules that had been in place in a China the past few years which allowed couples who are both only children to have more than one child. The new rules allow a second child if either one of the prospective parents is an only child. Thus far, only a small fraction of couples have taken advantage of the first round of relaxed rules. Thus, Professor Wang Feng of UC Irvine does not expect a big impact from this national easing of the one-child policy, as noted by The Globe and Mail:
Some 15 million to 20 million Chinese parents will be allowed to have a second child after the government announced Friday that couples where one partner has no siblings can have two children. But the easing of the policy is so incremental that demographers and policymakers are not anticipating an influx of newborn babies at a time when young Chinese couples are already opting for smaller families, driving the country’s fertility rate down to 1.5-1.6 births per woman.
“A baby boom can be safely ruled out,” said Wang Feng, professor of sociology at the University of California Irvine.
Wang noted that although Chinese couples where both parents have no siblings have for some time been allowed to have a second child, many have elected to have only one. “Young people’s reproductive desires have changed,” he said.Whether or not the change in policy has an impact on China's demographics, it is a very positive sign that the human rights issues surrounding the one-child policy are easing. China's leaders understand that the country still cannot afford a huge population boom, but it is a good sign that they believe that the birth rate will stay low without government pressure.
Update: A story in today's New York Times suggests that it may be too early to believe that the human rights issues with respect to reproductive decisions in China are behind us:
The Chinese state-run news media have celebrated the shift as demonstrating that Mr. Xi’s government is willing to make changes that have been debated, and delayed, for many years. But over the weekend, a senior official in the National Health and Family Planning Commission said that provincial-level governments would decide when to carry out the new policy, and he stressed that the government had no plans to further relax family size restrictions.
“There will not be a uniform nationwide timetable for starting implementation,” Wang Pei’an, a vice minister of the commission, said in a question-and-answer transcript issued by Xinhua, the state-run news agency. “But it would be inadvisable for the lag in timing of implementation between each area to be too long.” Provincial-level governments include large municipalities, like Beijing and Shanghai, which answer directly to the central government.