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Chinese say one child is enough as Beijing weighs end of policy

BEIJING – Liu Jie remembers clearly when her mother violated China's one-child policy and gave birth to her little brother. The family was living in Hunan province, where her mother worked as a teacher, and the illegal addition to the family cost her mother the job.

Now 23 and working as a secretary in Beijing, Liu fully supports doing away with the country's controversial one-child policy – an argument that has been gaining ground thanks to China's increasingly grim population trends.

In a report released this week, the China Development Research Foundation, a high-level government think tank, recommended that a two-child policy be instituted in some provinces this year and a nationwide two-child policy be made law in 2015, with all birth limits eliminated by 2020.

Chinese government think tank urges end to unpopular one-child policy

"It's a great idea," Liu said. "It will help to solve some social problems, cultivate children's character and improve the treatment of the elderly."

But when asked if she would want to have more than one child, Liu quickly responded, "Oh no, I will only have one baby!"

"Raising children isn't easy and I don't think I'll have enough money for two children… if I have two, my quality of life would be worse," Liu said.

Hers is a dilemma confronting many Chinese: even if the government repeals the unpopular policy in order to address an approaching demographic time bomb, there are serious questions about whether Chinese families would even be willing to have more than one child in today's economic and social climate.

The one-child policy has been credited with reducing China's population from anywhere between 100 to 400 million people since its passing in 1979 under then-leader Deng Xiaoping.

At the same time, a gradual increase in life expectancy on the mainland has created a significant age imbalance waiting to play out: China's population over the age of 60 is expected to more than double from 185 million today to 487 million in 2053, or 35 percent of the population.

Meanwhile, the 52 percent of the population that will be of working age by then will be expected to support this swollen elderly group as well as the 16 percent of the population that will be children, raising serious questions on how the country will be able to sustain growth.

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These issues are unlike anything China has faced its thousands of years of history, said Gu Baochang, a professor at Beijing's Renmin University.

"China has no experience, no understanding, and no preparation for dealing with the new challenges posed by extremely low fertility, serious aging, speeding urbanization and wide spread of population," Gu warned.

Thinking twice
Amongst China's young population – the group that will be expected to carry this tremendous financial burden – there is general support for the elimination of the draconian policy they grew up with. But it doesn't mean that they are any more willing to have more children.

With soaring inflation on everyday goods and astronomical home prices in many of China's cities, everyday Chinese are taking a closer look at the daunting costs of child-rearing and other modern societal pressures and are thinking twice about having another child.

For Gong Leilei, a 32-year-old from Zhejiang, it's simply a question of money. Gong and his wife want a little sister for their six-year old son but have been reluctant to try.

"I wanted to have a daughter, but my wife does not want her now," Gong said. "She thinks we should wait until we have more money."

Joyce Li, a 38-year old program director at Beijing University, agreed that it's time for the one-child policy to go. "Right now the one-child policy has a lot of problems like the issue of taking care of the elderly… so it's necessary to change the one-child policy," Li said.

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Still, when asked whether she would have two children, she balked. "Right now raising a child in China is very expensive, so I don't think I have enough money for many children," she said.

"There are also other problems, like the issue of education," Li continued, "Right now it is very hard to get children into school."

The growing number of migrants moving into China's cities concerns some. Chen Chi, a 22-year old university student in Beijing, said he actually supported the one-child policy and worried about the burdens of a growing population.

"No, it's not a good idea to remove the one-child policy," Chen told NBC News. "The population is too high and more and more people will move to urban areas to have children, making the urban-rural population balance even worse."

As for children: "I will only have one baby," he said. "It is an economic decision."

New leadership, new policy?
Despite all the hubbub about the report calling for the end of the one-child policy, the odds are deeply stacked against any rapid movement in the direction of an easing of the law. China's ruling Communist Party today is heavily consensus-driven and the report released this week will likely be mediated on for some time before the Party's legislative gears begin moving.

That the report was issued and publicized in local Chinese media at all, however, suggests that Beijing is receptive to the idea of discussing the policy's abolition. Ultimately, if party leaders believe that removing the one-child policy is in the best interest of maintaining social stability, then change will likely be seen under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, the man expected to take power in China next week.

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But in an email interview with NBC News, Mayling Birney, a scholar at the London School of Economics, warned that while a two-child policy may align now with party priorities, that doesn't mean that there won't be complications that give leaders pause.

"People may be relieved that the government is relaxing its invasive family planning policy; they may be less likely to encounter tragic stories of coerced abortions; and the worrisome gender imbalance should improve," Birney said.

"At the same time, more births would create new demands and strain on the education and health systems, well before the new generation could make its contributions to future economic growth," she warned.

NBC News Le Li, Johanna Armstrong, Yanzhou Liu and Eric Baculinao contributed to this report.

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