For China, three decades of one-child policy proves hard to undo

Parents sticking with 1 child as China eases rules
Parents sticking with 1 child as China eases rules

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Story highlights

  • China's controversial one-child policy was recently relaxed
  • However, there's been no big rush for a second child
  • Many couples say the financial cost is too great

Beijing (CNN)In China, you can often tell what the Communist Party is thinking by watching TV.

For years, the typical on-screen Chinese family looked something like this: Glowing parents doting over one precious child.
The taglines drummed it home: "One hope." "One joy." "One responsibility."
    Lately, the perfect television family has changed.
    In a recent commercial, a boy begrudgingly shares a toy with his younger sister, then they all gather together with a large brood to watch the televised Lunar New Year Gala.
    The message appears to be: Two is better than one.

    Draconian policy

    The change is extraordinary.
    Since the early 1980s, the Party has enforced a draconian one-child policy on most Chinese to curb population growth.
    When the propaganda didn't work, local officials have resorted to abortions, heavy fines, and forced sterilization. It's perhaps the most hated policy in China.
    Now, under relaxed restrictions announced just over a year ago, couples like Yang Xue and Chang Zi'an, both professionals working in Beijing, are eligible for a second child to join their baby girl -- 11-month-old Tao Zi, or Little Peach.
    Chang was an only child but sometimes wished for a sibling while growing up.
    "Once my cousin visited and we shared a bed for several nights," says Chang, now an engineer.
    "I enjoyed that feeling. I wished I had a brother who could share a bed with me every night."
    Chang and his young family live in Tongzhou, on the eastern outskirts of Beijing, where high rise apartments compete with mega malls.
    Some call the area "Tong-afornia," because its sprawl of young professionals is a bit like parts of the Golden State.
    They are ideal candidates, it would seem, to have a second child.

    Glaring mistake?

    The Party is in a race against the clock. China faces a rapidly aging population and shrinking workforce.
    The government says the country could become home to the most elderly population on the planet in just 15 years, with more than 400 million over the age of 60.
    Researchers say healthcare and social services will all be burdened by the greying population, and the world's second largest economy will struggle to maintain its growth.
    "China has already begun to feel an unfolding crisis in terms of its population change," says Wang Feng, a professor at Fudan University and a leading demographic expert on China.
    "History will look back to see the one-child policy as one of the most glaring policy mistakes that China has made in its modern history."
    Perhaps surprisingly, Wang says that the one-child policy was both ineffective and unnecessary, since China's fertility rates were already slowing by the 1980s.
    The Chinese government still maintains that it was necessary to keep numbers down.
    But with around 150 million one-child families and a shrinking population, the Chinese government is moving cautiously, rather than doing away with the policy altogether.
    In January 2014, China said it would allow couples to have a second baby if the mother or father was an only child themselves.
    But, to the surprise of many, the new rules haven't yet sparked a baby boom.
    Nationwide, nearly one million couples have applied to have a second child, state media reported in January.
    Health officials had said that the policy would lead to as many as two million new births when the policy change was first announced.

    Time and energy

    Yang and Chang both have good jobs, but rent in Tongzhou is sky-high.
    And they want to send little Tao Zi to a private bilingual English and Chinese pre-school to help her in the ultra-competitive Chinese education system.
    Even if they were richer, they say they wouldn't want a second child.
    "Money is only part of the problem," says Yang.
    "Your energy and your time is also important. We both have to work. It is hard enough to raise her as a success. It will be miserable if we had to go through that again."
    As for his cousin's sleepovers, Chang wants to clarify.
    "It was great having him over, but I was also happy when he went home."