BEIJING – China’s decision to allow all couples to have two children instead of one has resulted in birth rates rising to the highest level since 2000, a government official said.

The country welcomed 17.86 million new children in 2016, an annual increase of 7.9 percent, with nearly half of the new births occurring in families which already had one child, Yang Wenzhuang, an official from the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC), said Sunday.

The figure was 1.31 million higher than in 2015, according to an article in the state-run China Daily.

China’s one-child policy, which began in the 1970s, was responsible for severe rights abuses, including forced abortions and sterilisation, heavy fines for families who violated regulations and compulsory birth control methods such as intrauterine devices.

The deeply unpopular rule also led to a ballooning elderly population, one of the worst gender imbalances in the world and selective abortions of female foetuses.

Around 53 percent of one-child families have no desire for a second, according to a survey of 10,000 families with kids under 15 by the All-China Women’s Federation.