A girl plays jump rope with her family by a road in Beijing on Dec. 7, 2012. China's Communist rulers announced an easing of the controversial one-child policy amid a raft of sweeping pledges unveiled on Friday, including the abolition of "re-education" labour camps and loosening economic controls. (WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

What is China’s one-child policy?

For more than three decades, this strictly enforced rule has meant that many Chinese couples could only have one child. They risked huge fines and varying degrees of harassment from local authorities if they had more than one.

China’s Communist Party leaders enacted the policy in 1980 to curb runaway population growth. It has been one of history’s biggest experiments in state-mandated demographic engineering and has been heavily debated.

The policy reshaped Chinese society, with birthrates plunging from 4.77 children per woman in the early 1970s to 1.64 in 2011, according to estimates by the United Nations. It also contributed to the world’s most unbalanced sex ratio at birth, with boys far outnumbering girls.

What part of the policy is being changed?

China announced Friday that couples can have a second child if either of the parents is an only child. The change affects a limited group of only-child adults of child-bearing age, many of whom were born under the current policy.

But the rest of the policy remains in place — as does the vast, powerful family-planning bureaucracy, with offices in every city, town and village, that was created to enforce the original decree. The leaders are likely changing the policy because of an aging population and a possible future labor shortage.

What will the change mean?

Don’t necessarily expect a sudden surge in population. A lot of people in China were already allowed to have a second child under existing exceptions to the policy. For years, rural peasants whose first child was a girl were permitted to have a second child. In addition, couples who are both ethnic minorities and couples who are both only children were already allowed to have a second child.

Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, offered what he called “an estimation” that at most “1 or 2 million births a year” might occur as a result of the policy change. That would be on top of the current level of 15 million annual births.

He and other experts said that even if given the option of having a second child, many urban couples will still choose to have only one because of the rising costs of housing and education in China’s cities.

China's one-child policy could potentially leave parents childless

How many people does this actually affect?

In China, good, hard numbers on a topic this sensitive are hard to come by. State-run media sometimes say that China has 150 million families with only one child, but some experts think the real number is larger. Even if that is true, no public statistics exist for how many of those only children have spouses with at least one sibling, the group that will now be permitted to have a second child.

Why is the one-child policy so hated and criticized?

Human rights groups have exposed forced abortions, infanticide and involuntary sterilizations, all banned in theory by the government.

The policy has also left quieter devastation in its wake in the form of childless parents — couples too old when their only child suddenly dies to have another.

Much resentment also stems from the huge fines the government collects for violations, estimated to total billions of dollars. No one knows the precise amount because it is kept secret, and the public is not told exactly where the money goes.

Lastly, critics say, there’s something disturbing and wrong with the government infringing on people’s sexual and family decisions by telling them whether they can have children and how many.

Has the policy done any good?

The government says the policy has prevented about 400 million births, which it sees as beneficial for a country whose enormous population poses social, economic and environmental challenges. On the global scale, China claimed in 2011 that its policy single-
handedly delayed by five years the date by which the world’s population reached 7­­ billion

Li Qi contributed to this report.