Is it finally time for Chinese people to have as many children as they want?
Is it baby-making time for the world’s most populous country?
That’s the question being raised after a two-child policy implemented two years ago failed to result in a baby boom.
As part of a major government overhaul announced this week, the Chinese government said it would dismantle the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
The family planning regulator, established in 1981 to enforce the one-child policy, will be replaced by a new body called the National Health Commission.
Social media users have applauded the move.
It's a sign the government may be gradually moving out of people's bedrooms.
The ruling Communist Party introduced the notorious one-child policy in the late 1970s, fearing that a large population would slow China’s economic development.
But four decades later, the world's second-largest economy is worrying about an aging population.
Data from 2015 shows that a Chinese woman gives birth to an average of 1.6 babies during her lifetime, compared with 1.8 in the US and 2.4 in India.
Facing a shrinking labor force and tax base, the government relaxed population controls in 2016 by allowing all couples to have two children.
The policy triggered a 7.9% increase in newborns the year it was implemented, but the baby boom was short-lived.
Last year, the number of new births dropped 3.5% to 17.23 million, a major disappointment compared with hopes for 20 million newborns a year.
Many young couples are simply not willing to have a second baby, citing the huge costs and lack of time.
“The trend is very clear,” said Cai Yong, an expert on China’s population at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“The younger generation in China, and all around the world, are delaying marriage and delaying childbearing.”
Even as Chinese couples delay or refuse childbearing, public discontent is growing against any kind of birth planning restrictions.
In many families, memories of coercive policies, forced abortions or even sterilization are still fresh.
Huang Xihua, a delegate to the National People's Congress from the southern province of Guangdong, has proposed to the legislature that China drop all limits on childbearing.
“These days many people choose not to get married or have babies, so we should allow others to have three, four or five children if they want,” Huang told Inkstone at the annual legislative meetings in Beijing.
“The perception that people are burdens to the nation should be changed. When you have people, you have consumption and prosperity."
Beijing resident Cao Juanhui, 40, submitted a petition signed by 5,000 couples to Chinese authorities in 2014, calling for the end of the one-child policy.
Cao gave birth to her second child in 2017, a year after the policy was relaxed.
But many other signers were still struggling to conceive due to their age, she said.
Cao said she would have had another child years ago, if not for the one-child policy. Her ideal family would have three kids.
“Every family in the world should be able to decide how many children they have,” Cao said. “It is time for China to give that right back to us.”
Despite calls from people like Cao and Huang (this is the fifth year the delegate made the proposal at the rubber-stamp parliamentary meeting), the government has given no further hints about relaxing the existing two-child policy.
Analysts say Chinese leaders are reluctant to abolish population controls completely.
As unpopular as they were, they've long been hailed as a major contributor to the nation’s economic growth.
Population expert Cai said another defender of birth controls was the country's huge family planning bureaucracy.
In China, birth control officers work in every layer of the bureaucracy, checking with households on new pregnancies, coaxing those carrying “extra” babies into terminations and collecting fines from violators.
“They are people who have been working on that forever,” Cai said. “They want to stay there. The inertia is very strong.”
During a parliamentary meeting last week, a senior official in charge of population control denied plans to ease the two-child policy, according to Chinese magazine Caixin.
Family planning rules will continue to be enforced by the new health regulator after the government restructuring.