When the Chinese writer Xinran set out to interview China's first generation of only children, she did not know what she would find. The results were startling: she encountered young adults who had been cosseted into helplessness, struggling with the world outside the cocoon, angry and alienated from the older generations who had invested all their hopes and fears in them. Others complained of neglect by parents who were consumed by the struggle to make money in China's boom years, and who felt little emotional connection to their parents.
It was not a scientific survey, and Xinran does not claim to encompass all the unintended consequences of 35 years of the world's most draconian and brutally enforced family planning policy. The social and economic impacts are well documented: the world's most rapidly ageing population, a growing labour shortage, a heavy and unfunded pension burden, an unknown number of undocumented "illegal" children and a gender imbalance of at least 35 million missing women, are the result of selective abortion and infanticide by a population that relied on male children for support in old age and to fulfil the obligation of continuing the line.
But in the decades since, China has changed beyond recognition. For thousands of years the family was so central that its importance is embedded in the language. Chinese boasts words that cover every shade and nuance of family relationships because those relationships were the foundation of the culture. Now it is a vast laboratory of social, cultural and psychological rupture, with nearly two generations of atomised individuals with no siblings, no cousins, no aunts or uncles.
The irony is that the economic and social changes unleashed at the same time as a result of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms and the opening up of China might have produced a more balanced and less traumatic slowing of population growth without coercion. When the one-child policy was launched, most Chinese lived on the land. A peasant family lives by manual labour and sees children, especially males, as a necessary pair of hands and a hedge against poverty in old age. But the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation that Deng's reforms set in train drew that rural population to city building sites and urban factories until, in 2012, China crossed the historic threshold of a majority urban population.
For a low-wage couple struggling to make a living in the city, dependents are a liability: they cannot contribute financially and they create secondary expenses of extra housing, educational, care and health needs. Such couples tend to limit the size of their families without coercion, if they can.
Now the impact of the one-child policy is forcing a progressive relaxation: non-Han Chinese families have always had the much resented privilege of larger families; last year Han couples who themselves were single children were allowed to have two; couples whose first child is a girl could try again. But relaxation has not brought the surge in births that the government anticipated, and it may be that something fundamental has changed.
In today's China, many struggling urban couples will stick with one; others, like some in Xinran's sample, are no longer imprinted with the imperative of family continuity, and will choose to have none. If the government wants to encourage more births, it might be better advised to end controls entirely – to get out of the bedrooms of China and let the people choose. A few might want to have six children. Most will not.