China’s southwestern province of Sichuan will drop restrictions on unmarried people having children, part of a broader attempt by the government to boost the country’s plummeting birth rate.
The policy shift came after China’s population shrank last year for the first time in more than six decades, marking a historic moment in its deepening demographic crisis.
Currently, the Sichuan government only allows married couples to register the births of up to two children. Starting from February 15, all citizens – including unmarried parents – can register with no ceiling on the number of children.
In China, birth registration is often required for parents to access benefits such as maternity insurance. It is also needed to obtain a household registration document, or hukou, that grants children access to social welfare, such as healthcare and education.
The Sichuan provincial health commission said in a statement that by scrapping the restriction on marriage, the new measures shifted the focus of birth registration to “the desire and results of childbearing.”
An official from the commission told state media the policy was intended to protect the rights of single mothers, instead of encouraging unmarried people to become parents.
The new rules will grant single parents in Sichuan access to benefits previously reserved for married couples, such as maternity insurance that covers prenatal healthcare, childbirth-related medical expenses and paid maternity leave.
Sichuan, home to more than 83 million people, is the fifth most populous province in China.
Its relaxation of birth registration requirements follow similar steps taken by other provinces, such as Guangdong and Shaanxi.
China’s demographic crisis, which is expected to have an increasing impact on growth in the years to come, has been a key concern for policymakers.
Beijing scrapped its decades-long and highly controversial “one child” policy in 2015, after realizing the restriction had contributed to a rapidly aging population and shrinking workforce that could severely distress the country’s economic and social stability.
To arrest the falling birth rate, the Chinese government announced in 2015 that it would allow married couples to have two children. But after a brief uptick in 2016, the national birth rate has continued to fall.
Policymakers further relaxed limits on births in 2021, allowing three children, and ramped up efforts to encourage larger families, including through a multi-agency plan released last year to strengthen maternity leave and offer tax deductions and other perks to families. But those efforts have yet to see results amid changing gender norms, the high cost of living and education, and looming economic uncertainty.
Many young people are choosing to marry later or deciding not to have children altogether.