By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China will eventually scrap family planning restrictions, a senior official said on Tuesday, days after the government announced it will allow millions of families to have two children.
China, with nearly 1.4 billion people, is the world's most populous country. The government says the policy of limiting families to one child, which covers 63 per cent of the population, has averted 400 million births since 1980.
But the policy is increasingly seen as harmful to the economy.
The easing of the family planning policy, announced as part of a package of reforms on the weekend, would not take long and would be implemented by the provinces, said Mao Qun'an, spokesman for the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
He did not give a time-frame. Provincial legislatures would have to first write the measures into law.
Mao said China would further loosen family planning policy but signaled that the government would not abandon it in the near term.
"The situation that you mentioned will be realized one day," Mao said when asked whether China could see a day when there would be no family planning restrictions.
He said he could not say when and how the policy would change.
"We can say that China, through its family planning policy, has controlled its rapid population growth and eased the pressures that population imposes on the natural environment ... But we are also very clear that, in order to obtain these achievements, the country's people have made a great sacrifice.
"We do not deny that there is a contradiction between the state's implementation of the family planning policy and the desire of every individual and every family to give birth."
Mao said China would take into account the economic, social and demographic situation before it made further adjustments.
A growing number of scholars has urged the government to reform the one-child policy, introduced in the late 1970s to prevent population spiraling out of control, but now regarded by many experts as outdated and harmful to the economy.
Although it is known internationally as the one-child policy, China's rules governing family planning are more complicated. There are numerous exceptions governing the policy.
"As for the policy of family planning, (we) must adhere to it for a fairly long period of time," Mao said. "Because our country's demographic situation still needs it."
The Health Ministry's deputy director, Wang Peian, said on Saturday that China was not considering a broad relaxation of its one-child policy.
The government said last week that it would allow couples in which one of the parents was an only child to have a second child. It was the most significant relaxation of the one-child policy in nearly three decades.
In recent days, shares of baby formula, stroller, diaper and even piano manufacturers rose sharply on expectations that demand would spike. Chinese condom maker Humanwell Healthcare Group dipped.
With last week's relaxation of the policy, about one million more babies will be born each year in China, Mao said.
Mao said there was no resistance from the provinces in implementing the new policy. "From what we know about the situation, the attitudes from various places are generally welcoming, including those provinces that have a large population base," he said.
On China's Twitter-like Weibo, many users discussed the cost of a second child and called for a general two-child policy. Still, the recent relaxation was welcomed by many.
"I am a single child and my husband isn't, so I hope this policy can be implemented soon, because I like children and they can keep each other company," Yu Jing, a 31-year-old mother of one child told Reuters at a Beijing kindergarten.
(Additional reporting by Hui Li and Sabrina Mao; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Robert Birsel)