When China on Monday announced a new three-child policy to combat its ageing population , it sparked a range of discussions by citizens and observers. Some wondered if there would be sufficient incentives for people to have larger families, such as tax relief, housing support and affordable education. Others who were not intending to have even one child, due to the cost of living and other concerns, reacted negatively to the plan. But not much has been said about the traumatic effects of the new policy’s draconian predecessor – the one-child limit introduced in the 1980s and eased only in 2016. Why are Chinese millennials choosing not to have kids? For three decades, many people were forced to endure forced sterilisations, steep fines for having more than one child, or the guilt of killing their own children to comply with the law. I have seen the anguish and suffering that some people carry to this day. In 2015, I met a car mechanic in Hebei who went into debt after forking out almost two years’ worth of his salary to pay the fines, or “social maintenance fees”, for having a second child. In Hunan, a mother of one recalled how she was forced to undergo sterilisation to keep her job as a low-level government employee. She choked as she revealed she had always dreamed of having a big family. A migrant worker living on the outskirts of Shanghai saw his cattle and farm tools confiscated by village officials after he had a second child. One boy I met in rural Shandong did not officially exist, as his parents could not afford the fines. As an unregistered child – known as a hei hu, or “illegal child” – he had no access to education, health care and other social services. What was China’s one-child policy and why was it so controversial? But there were many children who had it worse. The one-child policy resulted in countless abandoned babies and a legion of mainly nameless female fetuses and infants. A domestic helper from Sichuan told a hotline counsellor in Hangzhou that she suffered years of nightmares after she drowned her firstborn, a girl, to try for a son. China’s population problems are serious, with the latest census data showing that some 12 million babies were born in 2020, the fourth consecutive year the number had fallen. But for Beijing to have any chance of success with its three-child policy , it must reflect on the human costs of its one-child policy. In particular, the government should ensure that couples who have a fourth baby under the three-child policy would not face any extreme consequences, to prevent the tragedies of the past from being repeated. Better yet, China should simply abolish any limits on the number of children that couples can have. That should provide a tiny measure of solace to the victims of its one-child policy. And hopefully, too, spur population growth.