By Yawen Chen and Ryan Woo

BEIJING (Reuters) – A proposal by two Chinese researchers to force couples with fewer than two children to pay into a “procreation fund” backfired on Friday, with critics calling it a “thoughtless” and “absurd” way to battle the problem of an ageing population.

Since 2016, China has allowed urban couples to have two children, replacing a decades-old one-child policy blamed for falling birth rates and a greying society, but the changes have not ushered in the hoped-for baby boom.

Births in mainland China fell by 3.5 percent last year due to fewer women of fertile age and the growing number of people delaying marriage and pregnancy.

But the suggestion of a fund to subsidize large families, out of annual contributions from people younger than 40 who have fewer than two children, or none, was widely panned.

“I’m really upset by its stupidity,” 21-year-old Ranny Lou responded to the suggestion of the procreation fund after it went viral on social media.

“Shall we hoard condoms and contraceptive pills now to profit when the government imposes curbs on purchasing these things in the future?”

Two researchers at a state-backed institute suggested the fund, as they looked for ways to counter the “precipitous fall” they anticipate in the birth rate in the next two to three years.

Until withdrawn on retirement of the contributor, or on the birth of a second child, the contributions will subsidize other families with more babies.

“The consequences of this trend of couples having fewer children will be very serious,” the researchers from the Yangtze River Industrial Economic Research Institute wrote.

State television took aim at the researchers’ proposal, published on Tuesday in the Xinhua Daily newspaper of the Communist Party in Jiangsu province, calling it “absurd” and “unbelievable”.

“We can encourage people to have more babies through propaganda and policy incentives, but we can’t punish families which opt to be childless or have fewer children in the name of creating a ‘procreation fund’,” CCTV said on its website on Friday.

Policymakers must offer tax cuts, incentives and greater public spending to allay young people’s concerns about the high cost of child rearing, CCTV added.

Authorities in some regions and cities have in recent months rolled out longer maternity leave and more subsidies for mothers bearing a second child.

But some critics worry the improved benefits will worsen deep-rooted discrimination against women at work as companies frown at rising costs.

(Reporting by Yawen Chen and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Darren Schuettler)