China has just announced that all married couples are allowed to have a maximum of three children — upping the official two-child limit in place since 2016. The greenlighting of a three-child policy came on the heels of China’s newest census results. What’s behind this big policy change?

Beijing released the 2020 census findings on May 11, following a one-month delay that prompted speculation that the leadership was unsatisfied with some of the demographic trends. China’s 2020 census reported an official population size of 1.41 billion people, a 5.38 percent bump since the previous count, in 2010 — but this was the lowest decade-on-decade growth since the 1950s.

The three-child policy is another step that the Chinese Communist Party is taking to confront the looming demographic challenges of persistently low birthrates and a rapidly aging population. And it’s a sign that the 2016 switch to a universal two-child policy didn’t produce the desired increase in birthrates.

How has the official policy changed?

Population control has always been part of China’s plan for achieving development goals. Despite sharp fertility declines throughout the 1970s, in 1980, the party leadership instituted a nationwide one-child policy, as part of the efforts to jump-start economic growth. During the one-child era, the official narrative framed “excessive population growth” as an urgent national crisis that had kept China from ascending in the world.

In 2016, Beijing universally relaxed the one-child rule and allowed all married couples to have two children. China’s state media has trumpeted the increases in birth quota — first to two and now to three — as measures to maintain the country’s labor force after successful implementations of the one-child policy.

Expanding reproductive rights — the right to have children — isn’t part of the policy objective. The new birth quotas exclude anyone outside of the institution of heterosexual marriage. Unmarried women still face hurdles accessing maternity benefits and assisted reproductive technologies. And in much of the discussions surrounding China’s birth planning, the desire and the right to bear children among the LGBTQ+ population, and the constraints it faces, remain invisible altogether.

How do young people view the end of the one-child policy?

My research examines the demographic, political and gendered consequences of China’s changing birth planning policies. Since 2016, I have conducted more than 100 in-depth interviews with college-educated urban young women and men about their marriage and childbearing decisions, to investigate how the end of the one-child policy has affected their lives at home and at work.

I found that college-educated urban young adults still look at having one child as the natural next step after marriage. To many, the purpose of getting married is to have a child, which completes the family. Some men and women in my study wanted to have two children, typically a daughter and a son — but only in an ideal scenario, in which they were unencumbered by time and financial constraints. They see high housing costs, long work hours and the extreme competitiveness of China’s educational system as constraints against having more than one child.

The 2016 two-child policy didn’t lead to a rebound in fertility, as China’s leaders had hoped. I found that the relaxation of birth limits ignited ambivalence, anxiety and anger among the young women I interviewed.

How do women see the changes in birth quota?

Highly educated urban young women worry about losing the right to equal work opportunities. China’s state-mandated maternity leave is generous — far surpassing the length of paternity leave, which is at the discretion of provincial governments. This disparity contributes to widespread gender discrimination in hiring.

The majority of the young women in my study reported that prospective employers asked about their relationship status and childbearing plans during job interviews. People working in occupations with a high concentration of women described implicit workplace “queuing” — employers wanted to regulate the timing of childbirth among female employees. Women who participated in hiring decisions reported an intensified preference for hiring male candidates after 2016, as a way to avoid potential added costs if a female hire opted to have more than one child and needed to take more than one long maternity leave.

Yet China’s young women want to work. Almost all regarded being a full-time caregiver at home as a risky life choice — and a surefire way of getting trapped and left behind. The women in my study viewed employment as integral to becoming an independent and worthy woman. They met the relaxation of birth quotas with apprehension, thinking it would push women out of the labor market and back into the home.

Highly educated urban young women, in fact, worry about losing the right to choose not to have children. Rather than seeing the end of the one-child era as a relief, they feared it would reimpose an obligation to have children, with greater pressure from family members and the government.

China’s enforcement of the one-child policy heavily relied on coercive methods, including monetary fines, threats of job loss and property seizure — and forced abortions. Well aware of this history, some women in my study expressed deep unease that the increases in birth quotas would one day become mandatory, making it impossible to opt out of childbearing.

These women also saw the one-child policy as a “guardrail,” shielding women from familial pressure to have multiple children. Consistent with findings from other scholars, the women in my study — typically urban singleton daughters — considered themselves as empowered by the one-child policy and benefiting from concentrated parental investment in their well-being and education and the lack of competition from male siblings.

In my study, I did find some people supporting the relaxation of birth quotas. These young men and women viewed easing birth limits as a much needed policy change that would enable China to steer clear of economic stagnation and maintain its place in the world. The big question, however, is whether this attitudinal support actually translates into fertility behavior — and whether the five-person family will become more common in China.

Yun Zhou is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @yunjulietzhou.