By Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program

China's historic policy change to allow all couples to have two children was presented as an economic imperative, but some believe individual choice, increasingly encouraged to drive consumption, will decide family size in years to come.

China's media has generally portrayed the shift in the family planning policy, announced at the fifth plenum of the 18th Party Congress in Beijing a week ago, as needed to reverse a declining birth rate, combat an ageing population, and sustain economic growth in decades to come.

Since the one child policy was introduced in 1980, life expectancy in China has increased. From 69 years in 1989, it's now 75.4 years. In recent years, the working age population (those aged between 15-59) has fallen, down from 919.5 million in 2013 to 915.8 million this year. China's birth rate has declined to 12.49 (per 1000 people per year), ranking China 159th in the world.

The economic motivation was clear in the policy change announcement, which stated that the Party would 'promote balanced development of the population' while 'allowing a couple to have two children, and actively carry out actions to deal with an aging population'. There was also, of course, the context of the announcement: the change came at the fifth plenum, charged with charting China's economic path for the next five years.

More detail concerning the policy change came in a press conference with the National Health and Family Planning Commission Deputy Director Wang Pei-an. In contrast to Western media reports that China would be 'abandoning' its one child policy, Wang Pei-an said a family planning policy remained 'essential'.

He said the decision to change was not intended to diminish the accomplishments of the former policy, which had made 'remarkable achievements' in controlling China's population. Instead, as this Global Times editorial wrote, the decision to relax the restriction was made after 'objective analysis' concluded it would be in the best interest of the Chinese population and China's economic growth. 

Wang told reporters the policy shift was expected to increase the working age population by 30 million by 2050.

Protecting the legacy of the one child policy was also the goal of another Global Times opinion piece. This stated the change in policy was not a 'total negation of the past policy' which had 'history's best intentions' at its heart. The author urged readers to avoid discussing 'ifs' about the past, and instead look towards the future.

This opinion piece published in Global Times on Saturday also made the economic argument while also taking a mercantile view of the consequences. It said a two child birth policy would be beneficial to China's stagnant real estate market.

In a departure from state owned media, a piece published on Xinhua Wang suggested that the shift in policy was a response to the market-orientated reforms that have occurred in China over the last 30 years. Interestingly, the author was also optimistic that this was the beginning of the end of any family planning policy. The author hoped that the Party would instead alloindividual choice to dictate the fertility rate within China.

In contrast to the positive response from state-owned and state-aligned media, China's online community was more critical of the change. Many Weibo users took umbrage that the state will continue to interfere in their fertility choices. User @ 不心慌 wrote:

The state decides if you can give birth or if you can't give birth based on what they want for the future of the country. Have they ever considered the personal choice of the people? I feel used by the country.

Others lamented that, in the future, they would not only have to look after two sets of grandparents, they would also be responsible for two children. Some wrote they would still only have one child as they could not afford a second.

As China's growth slows, perhaps the biggest factor to influence China's birth rate will be economic forces and their impact on individual choices, as the Xinhua Wang article said. Only time will tell whether or not more couples will choose to have two children, thus reversing the declining birth rate.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Chris