China will maintain the strict family planning policy it imposed a generation ago to keep the birth rate low and the economy growing, President Hu Jintao said in remarks before new census data are released.
But demographers who have been advocating changes to the country's so-called one-child policy responded to Hu's speech with counterintuitive optimism, suggesting that Hu's decision to publicly address family planning now meant there was fresh debate among the leadership about how best to manage it.
There has been growing speculation among Chinese media, experts and ordinary people about whether the government would soon relax the policy _ introduced in 1980 as a temporary measure to curb surging population growth _ and allow more people to have two children. Currently, most urban couples are limited to one child and rural families to two.
That anticipation has grown despite the fact that Hu's comments, made at a Communist Party meeting of top leaders convened to discuss population issues, mirrored other official remarks in recent months.
Wang Feng, a population expert and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, called the timing of the comments ahead of the census "highly significant."
"I take this as an important signal that the debate has reached a high level and that changes will be on the way," he said.
Data on the first census in 10 years are due to be released publicly Thursday. Preliminary numbers based on a sample survey showed China had 1.34 billion people last year and growth had slowed to its lowest rate in decades.
China has the world's largest population and credits its family planning limits with preventing 400 million additional births and helping break a traditional preference for large families that had perpetuated poverty. But there are serious concerns about the policy's problematic side effects, such as selective abortions of girls and a rapidly aging population.
The Xinhua News Agency said Hu told other top communist leaders on Tuesday that the country would stick to its basic family planning policy and continue to maintain a low birth rate.
Xinhua said Hu briefly touched on concerns about population structure and the growing number of aging people, saying that social security and services for the elderly should be improved. He also called on officials to formulate strategies to cope with more retirees.
But demographers like Wang say that state help won't be enough to support ballooning numbers of retirees as the young labor pool shrinks. Society will face a "double squeeze," with more elder benefit payments being paid out and a smaller and smaller share of the population contributing to economic growth, he said.
The average number of children a Chinese woman will have in her lifetime _ the fertility rate _ is currently around 1.6, well below the replacement level of 2.1 that would hold a population steady. This means that each age group is smaller than the one older than it _ a trend that has proved hard to reverse in other societies.
"The worry for China is not population growth," said Wang. "It's rapid population aging and young people not wanting to have children. ... If Chinese leaders really choose to implement a policy of maintaining a low birth rate it will send China down a road of disaster."
Another unwanted consequence of the policy is China's skewed sex ratio. Chinese families with a strong preference for boys sometimes resort to aborting female fetuses. The practice worsened following the introduction of birth limits and sonogram technology that allowed sex detection early in pregnancy. Demographers worry the imbalance will make it hard for men to find wives and could fuel the trafficking of women and children as brides.
The male-female ratio at birth in China is about 119 males to 100 females, with the gap as high as 130 males for every 100 females in some provinces. In industrialized countries, the ratio is 107 to 100.
China's population is still growing but its growth rate has been contracting since 1987 and the U.S. Census Bureau has projected it will peak at slightly less than 1.4 billion in 2026, with India overtaking China as the world's most populous nation in 2025.
Cai Yong, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and an expert on China's population, called Hu's comments "hard to decipher" and said he didn't consider them a clear rejection of reform.
"Given the clear long-term population trend, the one-child policy won't continue for too long, I hope," he said.