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BEIJING: China will allow couples to have three children after a census showed its population is rapidly ageing, state media said Monday, further unwinding four decades of strict family planning controls in the world's most populous nation.

In 2016 China relaxed its "one-child policy" -- one of the world's strictest family planning regulations -- allowing couples to have two children as concerns mounted over an ageing workforce and economic stagnation.

But annual births have continued to plummet to a record low of 12 million in 2020, Beijing's National Bureau of Statistics said this month, as the cost of living rises and women increasingly make their own family planning choices.

China's fertility rate stands at 1.3 -- below the level needed to maintain a stable population, the figures revealed.

The slump threatens a demographic crisis which has alarmed President Xi Jinping's ruling Communist Party, risking a shortage of young workers to drive an economy experts say will have to support hundreds of millions of elderly by 2050.

A Monday meeting of the party's powerful Politburo led by Xi announced a further loosening of the state's control over the size of families.

"To actively respond to the ageing population... a couple can have three children," state media Xinhua reported.

The Politburo meeting promised "accompanying support measures" including improving maternity leave, universal childcare and lowering the costs of education, but without giving firm commitments.

The announcement was met with widespread ridicule on Chinese social media platform Weibo, tapping into a deep unease with long working hours, skyrocketing house prices and the rising burden to provide for ageing relatives that frames modern life.

"For Chinese millennials one couple must support four grandparents as well as three kids? Can the country give a hero's award to each of them?" read one comment that gained over 3,000 likes.

Others said the policy could only be taken up by those with money.

"The poor don't dare have kids, in two more generations there will only be rich people left," another user commented.

A poll on Weibo shared by Xinhua asking readers their reaction to the news later appeared to have been deleted after over 25,000 responded that they would not consider having three children.

China's gender balance has been skewed by decades of the one-child policy, and a traditional social preference for boys which prompted a generation of sex-selective abortions and abandoned baby girls.

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