Facing a future demographic crisis and ageing society, China's leaders are desperately seeking to persuade couples to have more children.
But bureaucrats don't seem to have got the message, fining a couple in a recent widely publicised case for having a third child against the strict letter of the law.
The move has sparked outrage among the public, who are venting their anger at venal population control officials who long persecuted couples for violating the now-scrapped "one-child policy."
"The country is doing all it can to encourage childbirth but the local governments need money, so we end with this sort of madness," a columnist and political commentator who writes under the name Lianpeng said on China's Weibo microblogging service.
"The low birthrate has everyone on edge, yet the local governments care only about collecting fees," journalist Jin Wei wrote on her verified Weibo account. "I don't know of any other nation that pulls its people in different directions like this."
The Wangs, the couple at the heart of the recent controversy, were ordered by local authorities in Shandong province to pay a fine known as a "social maintenance fee" of 64,626 yuan immediately after the birth of their third child in January 2017. After various deadlines came and went, the family's entire bank savings of 22,957 yuan were frozen last month, with the balance still due.
"I just don't know what I'm going to do," the husband, Wang Baohua, was quoted as saying by local media last week.
In 2016, the one-child policy was officially replaced with a two-child policy and Chinese couples were urged to go forth and multiply – within limits.
But the bump in the birthrate was fleeting. Last month, the National Bureau of Statistics said the number of new births last year fell to 15.23 million in a total population of 1.395 billion – a growth rate of .381 percent and the lowest increase since 1961, resulting in fully 2 million fewer births than in 2017.
Cases such as the Wangs' remain common, despite a growing recognition of the seriousness of the population crisis, said Yi Fuxian, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison and a leading critic of Chinese population policies.
Bureaucratic inertia and the desire of local officials to chase revenue contribute to the problem, Yi said.
Local bureaucrats in the Wang case said they were just following the law, citing the exact articles and passages. They also have a strong stake in maintaining the rules that justify their jobs and authority.
State media reports say fees meant to compensate for the resources extra children consume actually constitute a large percentage of local governments' discretionary funding – 15-30 percent – and can be used for a range of purposes from salaries to travel expenses.
Thus far, the National Health Commission has rejected calls to eliminate legal references to family planning, citing among other reasons article 25 of China's Constitution, which says, "The state promotes family planning so that population growth may fit the plans for economic and social development." (AP)