China ends one-child policy

China ended 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. But 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 a second child for some couples in urban areas.