Han Jing and her husband, Zhang Pengzhi, hold their son, Zhang Zichen. (Family photo)

Han Jing’s son started taking after-school classes when he was just 5 years old: extra English, math and drawing so he wouldn’t fall behind the other children at kindergarten. 

“I didn’t want him to feel ashamed or have low self-esteem on his first day of elementary school,” she said, worried that he’d face other children who spoke English, knew thousands of Chinese characters or could play the piano. 

Three years later, the pressure has only mounted: She and her husband spend more than $10,000 a year on after-school classes. It’s a huge drain on their time, and an even bigger one on their resources, given that her husband earns less than $35,000 a year. 

Their apartment is too small for a second child, and the cost of moving to a bigger one in Beijing has risen out of their reach. But it is not just money that is preventing them from having a second one: Han says they have also devoted all of their time and energy into their son, and they are simply exhausted.

“Seeing how much pressure my kid is under makes us feel bad, too, so I don’t want another kid of mine to go through this,” she said. “He’s so tired. We’re too tired. Whether it’s us or the child, I don’t think of any of us can handle another one.”

A child walks near a sign that reads, "1.3 billion people united" on the streets of Beijing, China. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

For nearly seven decades, China’s Communist Party has been an invisible presence in every bedroom here. In 1949, Mao Zedong said having more people would make the country stronger. The party condemned birth control and outlawed the import of contraceptives. Millions of women followed the Great Helmsman’s advice, and the population doubled.

It wasn’t until after Mao died that the party reversed course, doing so dramatically and often brutally. The one-child policy introduced in 1979 led to untold millions of forced abortions, sterilizations and horrific abuses of power. Birthrates plummeted.

Now, the party is changing course again. China’s population is aging fast, and that’s a huge, looming burden on the economy. The one-child policy was relaxed in 2013 and abandoned at the beginning of this year. The party wants people to get busy again.

Provinces all across China have offered women longer maternity leave, often adding several months to the old standard 98 days. In villages, new slogans are being dreamed up by party committees and draped across buildings and walls.

“Train your body, build up strength, get ready for the second baby!” one slogan said, according to reports in an online forum. “Get to sleep early, stop playing cards, work hard to produce a child!” exhorted another.

“No fines, no arrests. Go ahead and have a second child if you want one!”

The problem is that many people don’t want a second child any more. Having only one has become ingrained in Chinese culture and society, and people no longer believe the party should be telling them what to do in the bedroom. 

So when officials in the city of Yichang in Hubei province issued a public letter in September exhorting party members to “respond to the party’s call” and “fully implement the two-child policy,” there was outrage online.

“You can’t just make people have kids when you want them to, or stop when you tell them, we are humans not pigs!” one person posted.

Even the state-owned Global Times newspaper called the recommendations “ridiculous and illegal,” and the public letter has since disappeared from the website of the city’s health and family planning commission.

The government says the national birthrate rose by 6.9 percent in the first six months of this year compared with the same period last year, with 800,000 more births recorded. 

State media even reported a “baby boom” in Beijing, with long lines forming at the capital’s top hospitals to reserve beds, and some maternity wards booked until next April. 

But those reports were misleading, said Wang Feng, of the University of California at Irvine.

This year’s rise in childbirths is below the government’s target of 2.5 million extra births in 2016, he said, and still modest considering all the pent-up demand that the one-child policy should have created. 

The lines at the capital’s top hospitals are a function of bottlenecks in China’s overstretched health system: Many of the women who have elected to give birth this year are older than average, and have been encouraged to head for Grade A hospitals in case of complications.

Indeed, when the one-child policy was first relaxed in 2013, allowing parents who grew up as only children to have a second child, just 18 percent of the 11 million eligible couples applied to do so, Wang said, a response he called “lukewarm.” 

Mass migration to cities, where costs of living are high, has depressed birthrates, while people are getting married later, or not at all, Wang said.

“In the short run, hopefully China can add more people to its population, but in the long run it is very unlikely that fertility will go above 1.5 children per couple,” he said.

That’s a problem for China. The people born in Mao’s era are growing old, and there will be far fewer people of working age to bear the economic burden. 

But Xi Wei, father of a 9-year-old boy, said that he and his wife won’t be trying for another child. Their son does extra classes after school and all day on Saturday, and parents and child all feel exhausted by the social pressure for him not to “fall behind.”

As only children themselves, Xi and his wife also don’t think there is anything wrong with growing up alone. “After all these years, everybody is inclined to just have one child. Everybody’s used to it,” he said. “How can you have a second child when the whole society has hostile and incompatible resources towards it?”

Horrors of one-child policy leave deep scars in Chinese society

For many moms, the end of China’s one-child rule came too late

China lifts one-child policy amid worries over graying population