The policy allowing all couples to have two children has been in effect since Jan 1, but the authorities should improve policies related to pregnancy and childcare to raise China's total

fertility rate. Since 2000 China has been in the lowest-low fertility rate trap, with the actual fertility rate being less than 1.3. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the total fertility rate in 2011, 2012 and 2013 was 1.04, 1.26 and 1.23, far below the population replacement rate, which has led to problems such as an aging population, "empty nest" families, gender imbalance and labor shortage.

The goal of reforming the reproductive rights policy should be to strengthen families against risks to achieve a moderate fertility rate (total fertility rate between 1.6 and to 2.5). And to promote the new family planning policy, the authorities should devise a new population concept based on population security. If, in the process, there is a baby boom, it will create more advantages than disadvantages, and more opportunities than challenges for the country.

Therefore, China should work out a long-term road map for the family planning policy, not only to allow all couples to have two children, but eventually make couples' wish to have more children a "personal choice". Perhaps this process could start during the 13th Five-Year-Plan (2016-20).

The percentage of children in China's total population has been in decline since the 1980s, while that of senior citizens has been increasing. The third national census, held in 1982, showed people aged between 0 and 14 years accounted for 33.6 percent of the total population, while those between 65 and above added up to 4.9 percent. In 2000, the percentages were 22.9 and 7, and in 2010, 16.6 and 8.87. This shows the sustainable development of China's population has been largely undermined.

The low fertility rate in China cannot be reversed in a short time. A National Bureau of Statistics' survey in 2014 showed 43 percent of the targeted group (couples either of whom were the only child of their parents and thus were eligible to have two children) was willing to have a second child. But a National Health and Family Planning Commission survey in early 2015 showed only 39.6 percent of the eligible couples wanted to have two children.

Till the end of May 2015, about 1.45 million couples from across the country applied to have a second child, and about 1.39 million of such applications were approved. But the increase in the number of newborns depends on whether these couples will really have a second child, which, in turn, will be determined by their financial conditions. Only when couples desirous of having two children actually have them can they help gradually correct the population imbalance in China.

But instead of waiting for such a development to take place, the authorities should improve maternal and childcare services, and policies related to them such as risk assessment. And the central and local authorities have to monitor and evaluate the newborn population and fertility rate to ensure medical and health resources are properly distributed.

China could learn from the childbearing welfare policies of countries such as Sweden and Canada, and implement them in the country, albeit with Chinese characteristics. A robust national childbearing policy, after all, can help ease the burden of families that want to have two children and thus improve China's dwindling demographic dividends.

The author is a professor at the Population Research Institute of Peking University.

(China Daily USA 03/03/2016 page12)