BEIJING • For decades, China harshly restricted the number of babies that women could have. Now it is encouraging them to have more. It is not going well.
Almost three years after easing its one-child policy and allowing couples to have two children, the government has begun to acknowledge that its efforts to raise the country's birth rate are faltering because parents are deciding against having more children.
Officials are now scrambling to devise ways to stimulate a baby boom, worried that a looming demographic crisis could imperil economic growth - and undercut the ruling Communist Party and its leader, Mr Xi Jinping.
It is a startling reversal for the party, which only a short time ago imposed punishing fines on most couples who had more than one child and compelled hundreds of millions of Chinese women to have abortions or undergo sterilisation operations. The new campaign has raised fear that China may go from one invasive extreme to another in getting women to have more children. Some provinces are already tightening access to abortion or making it more difficult to get divorced.
"To put it bluntly, the birth of a baby is not only a matter of the family itself, but also a state affair," the official People's Daily said in an editorial this week, prompting widespread criticism and debate online.
In what appeared to be a trial balloon to test public sentiment, the provincial government in Shaanxi in central China, last month called on Beijing to let people have as many children as they want.
Experts say the government has little choice but to encourage more births. China - the world's most populous nation with more than 1.4 billion people - is ageing quickly, with a smaller workforce left to support a growing elderly population that is living longer. Some provinces have already reported difficulties in meeting pension payments.
It is unclear whether lifting the two-child limit now will make much of a difference. As in many countries, educated women in Chinese cities are postponing childbirth as they pursue careers. Young couples are also struggling with economic pressures, including rising housing and education costs.
The one-child policy also resulted in more boys than girls being born, meaning there are fewer women to marry and bear children.
"Without the introduction of measures to encourage fertility, the population of China will drop sharply in the future," said Mr He Yafu, a demographer and author of a book on the impact of China's population controls.
In advance of any policy changes nationally, local governments are already taking steps to promote childbirth. In Liaoning, a province in the north-east with one of the nation's lowest birth rates, officials last month proposed an array of new benefits for young families, including tax breaks, housing and education subsidies and longer maternity and paternity leaves, as well as investments in clinics and pre-schools. In Jiangxi province, in the south-east, the government has adopted a more intrusive approach, re-issuing guidelines for when women can get abortions.