China's one-child policy, probably the most audacious exercise in social engineering the world has ever seen, could be up for review, as Beijing policymakers worry about the effects of a population ageing fast, with insufficient numbers of youngsters to support them.
There is speculation that a gradual rollback of the policy – first imposed 31 years ago – will start next year with pilot schemes in the five provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Zhejiang and Jiangsu.
An official at the Population and Family Planning Committee, who did not wish to be named, acknowledged that a change in the rules was being discussed, but added: "There has been no news about any change in policy from the inner circle of government. Any possible change would cause a huge reaction, so the government would take very careful consideration before making any official announcement about this policy."
Under the one-child policy, imposed as a way of reining in population growth which was running at dangerously high levels in the world's most populous nation, most families were limited to one child.
The aim was to reduce fertility levels to 1.7 children per family, because this was seen as the only way of improving living standards. At first, couples were encouraged through education and propaganda to have one child, but this soon gave way to tougher measures: the early 1980s saw widespread sterilisation, especially among women in rural areas.
This still goes on today and the issue is as contentious as ever. Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist who was released from jail this week in Shandong province, was imprisoned in 2006 after he wrote a report about the status of women in his local area of Linyi, a region with some 10 million residents. In it he revealed how tens of thousands of people who had an illegal number of children and were ineligible to have any more were compelled to undergo late-term abortions, with others forcibly sterilised. The report included accounts of men arrested and their wives forced to abort eight months into their pregnancies. The policy has also led to a serious gender imbalance, with 120 boys to every 100 girls.
China's working population will fall by around 10 million people a year every year after 2025, and the number of young people between 20 and 24 will drop by a quarter over the next decade. "Young people of this age group are most energetic, productive and willing to learn," Ji Baocheng, president of the Renmin University of China, told local media. He has submitted a proposal to reconsider the family-planning policy to China's top legislature.
China is already experiencing a shortfall of skilled workers – in the south of the country there is a particular shortage in the heavily industrialised Pearl River delta. And the spectre of an ageing population hangs heavy over Shanghai, where the proportion of working adults to retirees is low. Experts attending a pensions conference in Beijing last week were told that the year 2015 would mark the beginning of the end of China's "demographic dividend".
By 2050 the country will have more than 438 million people over 60, with more than 100 million of them aged 80 and above. There will be just 1.6 working-age adults to support every person aged 60 and older, compared with 7.7 in 1975. Government forecasters expect China's population to peak at around 1.5 billion in 2032.
Now the problem is not too many children, but too few. Not enough families are taking advantage of the rules allowing certain citizens to have more than one child, especially in wealthy Shanghai, and family planning authorities there are attempting to encourage more procreation. Couples who are both only children, which includes most of the city's newly-weds, are allowed a second child. Also, couples are allowed a second child if both partners have PhDs, if they are disabled, if they come from a rural area or in some cases if their first child is a girl. There are also exceptions for widows, widowers, or divorcees who marry someone who is childless. But the main focus of the one-child policy has been on the countryside, where farmers like large families with lots of sons. Middle-class Chinese in the cities, like the middle classes the world over, have fewer children by choice.
The policy is unpopular for many reasons. Teenage boys and girls complain about having no sister or brother to confide in, about adopting their cousins as siblings. Their twentysomething single-child counterparts are accused of being spoiled and greedy.
Some people are going to Hong Kong to have their second children, putting a massive strain on the maternity clinics in the territory. Some are even flying to the United States to have their second babies.
There is also growing anger about government interference in the private lives of ordinary citizens. Three decades of opening up and reform have seen personal empowerment on an unprecedented scale in China, with many families, especially in the cities, going about their lives without any recourse to the Communist Party and its diktats.
Wealthier Chinese, for example, have often had more than one child and simply paid the fine, content to deal with the consequences. Children born in contravention of the policy do not qualify for benefits such as free education or healthcare.
A change to the policy would be popular. Zhuo Yue, 30, is about to give birth and is very excited at the prospect of a softening of the rules.
"A change would be wonderful, because I'm about to have a baby and want to have another child in three years. But at the same time I feel pressure, since raising children in big cities such as Beijing is so difficult these days for young parents. I mean, although I do want to have two children in my family, I'm not sure whether I can afford that," she said.
China is about to embark on a nationwide census on 1 November. To make sure it is accurate, the parents of children born in contravention of family planning legislation are to be given identity papers for their children. Normally, these are issued only on payment of a large fine, so that many parents hide their so-called "black children" who violate the policy by their very existence. So far there has not been much take-up for the amnesty, but that could change.
The National Population and Family Planning Commission believes that some 400 million births have been prevented by the policy. Whenever voices in the West criticise this incredible experiment in social engineering, Chinese population experts urge them to think of the global ramifications of 1.7 billion Chinese, instead of 1.3 billion.
After years of having the one-child message communicated to them a lot of Chinese are supportive of the broader idea of population control as a way of ensuring the better distribution of wealth. "A change would be a great thing, but the statistical work should be done carefully beforehand, because the coming population increase would also bring a lot of social problems. And, beyond all these, how to balance the 'new' policy so that it is used in a fair way to the whole of society, is also a serious problem that should concern all of us," said a 39-year-old man surnamed Gao.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies