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China changes provincial law to allow singles to have children


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In an effort to stem the demographic crisis looming over China, authorities in the southwestern province of Sichuan will allow legally unmarried citizens to form families and enjoy benefits generally reserved for married couples.

Chinese law makes it difficult for babies born out of wedlock to access the hukou, a kind of identity record — and all the benefits associated with it. The law was implemented to prevent possible violations of the one-child policy, which allowed only one child per couple, in effect between 1979 and 2015.

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With the country’s ever-accelerating decline in the number of marriages and births — which culminated in the announcement that China’s population had officially begun to shrink earlier this year — however, Sichuan authorities modified a 2019 guideline to allow that citizens with other marital statuses also procreate.

As of February 15th, couples who wish to have children but are not husband and wife will be able to register with local authorities and receive benefits previously reserved for married individuals. These include medical insurance for the period of pregnancy and the guarantee of receiving full salary during maternity leave. The previous limit of aid, of two children per couple, was also suspended.

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Sichuan is the fifth most populous province in China. It is also one of the oldest, ranking seventh in the country in this category — official figures indicate that more than 21% of its population is over 60 years old.

The local government said that the measure announced this Monday seeks to “promote a balanced population growth in the long term”. It joins other birth incentive policies so far announced only at municipal and provincial levels. In Nanchan, capital of Jiangxi Province, in the eastern part of the country, for example, families with two or three children under 18 receive a subsidy ranging from 300 to 500 yuan (R$230 to R$384).

The beginning of the population decline in the Asian giant represents a historic setback for a nation, which for years made population strength one of the engines for the accelerated growth of the economy. This is the first time that the Chinese population has dropped since 1961, when the country was facing the worst famine in its modern history, resulting from Mao Tse-tung’s policy, which became known as the Great Leap Forward.

Data from the National Statistics Office indicate that the birth rate at the end of 2022 was 6.77 per thousand inhabitants, the lowest number on record – in 2021, it was 7.52. At the other end is the death rate: from 7.18 in 2021, it rose to 7.37, also setting a record for almost 50 years – it was only higher in 1974, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution.

The numbers make clear the fact that, if they were effective in recent decades, Beijing’s birth policies now reach a stage between disbelief and a dubious legacy. The most famous of these was that of an only child, the target of a series of complaints, from state repression to forced abortions.

In terms of effectiveness in stemming the population explosion, however, the legislation worked. It is estimated to have prevented the birth of around 400 million Chinese, or more than a third of the current population.

Rigidity, however, took root in society, so that its suspension was not accompanied by a boom in births. Even a new flexibility announced in 2021 that allowed couples to have up to three children did not have significant effects.

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