BEIJING – The Communist Party's decision to ease limits on family size makes China a bit less restrictive but is a reminder of the party's pervasive role in society.
The 35-year-old policy that limited most urban couples to one child is a holdover from an era of intrusive controls that dictated where Chinese worked and lived — even whom they could marry. The latest change, driven by a need for more young workers, allows married couples two children but affirms party power over what most societies consider a basic right.
Thursday's announcement was a reminder that many official policies treat the Chinese public as economic raw material. It cited a need to "improve the balanced development of population," rather than to give people more control over their lives.
"This is a technical change, a policy change, rather than a political change," said Joseph Cheng, a retired political scientist formerly at the City University of Hong Kong. "If you try to have more than two children, you still get sanctions. So the state retains that kind of power."
The change is part of the Communist Party's relentless, gradual policy changes that are aimed at making China rich while retaining the party's monopoly on power.
Communist leaders relaxed other social controls over the past 30 years as they rolled out market-style economic reforms. If entrepreneurs were to create wealth and jobs, they needed to be allowed to pick where to work and travel.
On the political front, though, the party says it never will share power and jails pro-democracy activists on subversion charges.
Birth limits were imposed in 1979 to conserve resources and proved more durable because of the intensity of the ruling party's worries about shortages of farmland and water.
The party says the controls led to 400 million fewer births, making possible the economic boom of the past three decades. But enforcing them led to draconian measures, including forced abortions.
As recently as 2010, authorities in the southern city of Puning pressured couples to consent to sterilization by detaining 1,377 of their relatives, according to the human rights group Amnesty International.
Policy experts have warned for more than a decade that birth limits were pushing up China's average age, raising the danger that it would have too few workers to support a growing population of retirees.
That crunch is starting to hit. China had one of Asia's highest median ages at 37.3 years in 2014, and that could rise to 40 by 2025, according to Euromonitor International, a research firm. It said the size of the working-age population aged 15 to 64 is set to decline starting next year.
That prompted some provinces in 2006 to allow an additional child for couples who were both only children. In 2013, that was expanded to allow two children for families in which only one parent was an only child.
The party might have gained confidence from the fact that only a limited number of parents took advantage of the 2013 change.
About 1.45 million couples, or 13 percent of the 11 million eligible, applied for permission to have a second child as of May, according to the National Health and Family Planning Commission. That was in line with a seeming decline in interest in childbearing overall: The government forecast 20 million births in 2014 but the commission said only 16.9 million were recorded.
Many might have been put off by the soaring cost of raising a child in a cramped apartment in increasingly urbanized China. That is estimated at anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 yuan ($6,500 to $16,000) a year.
"It already is a struggle for people to buy one house, not to say to buy another one for the second child," Joy Huang, a researcher for Euromonitor, said in an email.
Others who grew up in the era of single children see small families as normal, said Lu Jiehua, a Peking University sociologist who studies population.
"Couples born in the '80s and '90s are quite reluctant to have a second child," Lu said.
The latest policy change should result in 3 million to 6 million more babies over the five years starting in 2017, according to a Credit Suisse forecast. It said that would return the birth rate to its 1990s level.
If the birth rate fails to budge, then Beijing might have to ease controls further and allow three children or offer incentives such as longer maternity leave or free education, Lu said.
Despite market-style economic reforms, the Communist Party still plays a bigger role in many spheres of Chinese life than most other governments.
The party still controls all Chinese media and appoints every legislator, Cabinet minister, mayor and police chief and every president of a bank, university, phone company or oil producer.
And since 2008, political controls have become tighter, not looser.
The government of President Xi Jinping has revived the tactic of collective punishment, pressuring human rights and political activists by harassing their children and relatives.
In October, the 16-year-old son of a human rights lawyer was detained in Myanmar and returned to China against his will after he left the country to attend school in the United States. Chinese authorities placed him under house arrest.
"The bottom line is, you must not challenge the authority of the regime. You must accept the leadership of the party," said Cheng, the political scientist.
Joe McDonald has reported from China for The Associated Press since 1997.