The ruling Chinese Communist Party on Thursday announced an end to the "one-child" population control policy at the end of a top-level political meeting, saying that all couples will in future be limited to two children.
"China will allow all couples to have two children, abandoning its decades-long one-child policy," the state news agency Xinhua reported, quoting a party communique.
The move follows growing speculation in China's media, which is subject to tight government controls, as the party's Central Committee met in its fifth plenary session since President Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012.
It comes amid official concerns over a falling birth rate and a rapidly aging population, and follows an announcement at the end of 2013 that couples will be allowed to have two children if one of the parents is an only child.
Previously, most parents were restricted to having one child, although the political and financial elite were able to afford the financial penalties, and often have larger families.
Couples who want a second child must now wait until the communique is implemented, according to media reports.
But the new policy is unlikely to be met with huge public enthusiasm in a country where raising one child is already a crippling financial burden for some parents.
"People born after 1980 are less enthusiastic about having more than one child," the China Business News wrote in a recent editorial. "Therefore, a sharp increase in births beyond society's capacity is unlikely."
Working parents told RFA that many couples in their child-bearing years haven't taken up the option of a second child, even where the 2013 rules allow.
"People's aren't having a second," a management-level employee in a state-owned enterprise in the southern city of Shenzhen told RFA. "It's very hard to afford two kids; that's the situation we're in."
"On the one hand, it takes far more concerted effort to raise a child now than it used to, so the psychological burden is much greater," the employee, who gave only her surname Chen, said. "You can't just let them bring themselves up, like before."
"Another factor is the financial burden, which is pretty heavy. Everyone's money is going into raising their first kid," she said.
"People don't have a huge desire for more kids; less than half [who were eligible] have applied [in our company]."
Retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang said the party's abandonment of the "one-child" policy is an attempt to distance itself from a litany of rights abuses linked to the country's draconian family-planning regime.
"Of course it is an admission of previous mistakes, but it's too late for that," Sun said. "The family planning policy has been in place for 35 years, during which time it resorted to cruelty and violence to control the birth rate among the general population."
"The damage it did can't be dispelled in a day, and we may not recover from it in a decade, or even in two," he said.
Experts say forced abortions have been the norm for decades under China's one-child policy, as local officials strive to meet set quotas and impose fines for "excess births."
In June 2012, Shaanxi-based Feng Jianmei was forced to terminate her pregnancy at eight months, sparking global outrage after a graphic photo of Feng and her dead baby went viral.
The government launched an investigation and had officials, who had demanded a 40,000 yuan (U.S. $6,440) fine from Feng, apologize to her.
Another woman, Pan Chunyan, reported earlier that local family planning officials in Fujian province had forced her to get an abortion in her eighth month of pregnancy in April 2012.
Hubei-based Zhang Wenfang, herself a victim of a forced abortion and sterilization under the family planning system in 2008, welcomed the change in policy.
But she said there are no guarantees that the abuses won't continue.
"The government can make all the policies it likes, but they aren't implemented; nobody takes any notice," Zhang said. "There were rules in Hubei province in 2001 saying that no forced abortions were allowed after 16 weeks, and no abortions at all after 24 weeks ... but the local government didn't implement them."
"So it won't happen just on their say so," said Zhang, whose uterus and ovaries were removed during the abortion procedure without her knowledge or consent.
And the move comes too late for older couples whose only children have died.
"From our point of view, it's adding insult to injury," a bereaved elderly parent surnamed Yang told RFA. "They have never paid us the compensation we were due; they just gave us a handout, that was nowhere near enough to meet our needs."
"This policy is aimed at solving social problems that were created by the government in the first place; of course they didn't give any thought to parents who have lost their only child or grandchild," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.