(NYTIMES) - When Ms Fan Jianhua had her third daughter last year, she was afraid she would be fined for violating China's birth limits.
She was already heavily in debt after paying for treatment for her six-year-old daughter, who has leukaemia. But, to her relief, when she registered her new baby with the police, she did not have to pay the $7,500 fine.
"I was really happy and could finally relax," said Ms Fan, 34, a stay-at-home mother in the central city of Danjiangkou, in Hubei province.
Slowly, in fits and starts, China's ruling Communist Party is loosening its long-held restrictions over childbirth and women's bodies.
Some local governments have tacitly allowed couples to have more than two children. Beijing has said civil servants will no longer be fired for such infringements.
Party leaders have also pledged to make population policies more inclusive, a signal which some have taken to mean the rules will be eased further.
A growing number of voices in China have urged the government to abolish birth restrictions.
They say the government needs to take more aggressive action if it wants to reverse a precipitous decline in the national birth rate.
A recent once-a-decade population census showed that the number of births last year had fallen to its lowest since the era of Communist Chairman Mao Zedong.
Low fertility translates to fewer workers and weaker demand, which could stunt growth in the world's second-largest economy.
But the party is wary of giving up control and has resisted scrapping birth restrictions wholesale.
Instead, Beijing has been taking a piecemeal approach by slowly dismantling the once-powerful family-planning bureaucracy and carving out exemptions.
In many places, police officers, employers and city officials are deciding how strictly - or loosely - to enforce the rules.
That can mean freedom for some, like Ms Fan, to have more children. But it also creates uncertainty, adding to a reluctance to have more children.
The strategy could also founder amid broad cultural changes. Anxiety over the rising cost of education, housing and healthcare is now deeply ingrained in society.
Many Chinese prefer smaller families and the government's efforts to boost the birth rate, including introducing a two-child policy in 2016, have largely fizzled.
"If the restrictions on family planning are not lifted, and they are encouraging births at the same time, this is self-contradictory," said demography expert Huang Wenzheng from the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based research centre. He said removing the birth limits would convey an important message.
Since imposing the one-child policy in 1980, Beijing has maintained some of the world's harshest restrictions on procreation.
But, as it became clear that China's society was rapidly ageing, official murmurs about a reconsideration of the one-child policy surfaced but were dismissed.
It took years before the Chinese government moved to allow all couples to have two children.
Now, the population is ageing faster than those of many developed countries. Some argue that the government cannot afford to keep any restrictions on procreation.
"We have to take advantage of the fact that a certain number of residents now are willing to give birth but aren't allowed to," China's central bank said in a working paper last month. "If we wait to lift it when no one wants to give birth, it will be useless."
People of working age would make up 60 per cent of China's population in 2050, it predicted, down from three-quarters in 2010 - a decline that would hurt the country's productivity.
Beijing has sought to show that it is listening.
"The total fertility rate has fallen below the warning line, and population development has entered a critical transition period," wrote civil affairs minister Li Jiheng in December.
In January, the party-controlled national legislature urged local governments to stop imposing "excessively severe penalties" for the violation of birth limits.
Beijing's reluctance to abandon birth restrictions stems in part from its view that not everyone can be trusted to know how many children they should have.
"We found in some impoverished areas in the west that people are still obsessed with having more children," said China Population Association vice-president Yuan Xin to the official China Daily newspaper.
"A more relaxed family-planning policy may mean more children for them and make it more difficult for them to escape poverty."
Ultimately, the fate of China's family-planning policies may change little.
A generation of highly educated women are putting off marriage and childbirth for other reasons, including a rejection of traditional attitudes that dictate women should bear most of the responsibility of raising children and doing housework.
Ms Liu Qing, 38, an editor of children's books in Beijing, said getting married and having children were never in her future because they would come at too great a personal cost.
"All the things that you want - your ideals and your ambitions - have to be sacrificed," she said.