China has vowed to reform its controversial "one-child" family planning policy, in a move that could relax draconian controls and allow more couples to have two children, official media reported.
Beijing's National Health and Family Planning Commission this week confirmed media reports that change is on the way, but officials sought to distance themselves from reports that the changes would be in place by 2015, the English-language China Daily newspaper reported.
The commission's comments come amid widespread speculation that Beijing is on the verge of relaxing population controls and amid growing calls for a review of the policy, which frequently results in complaints of forced late-term abortions and other rights abuses.
Guangdong-based blogger Li Jun, who recently called for the abolition of family planning controls on his blog, said he believed the government was slowly dismantling the policy.
"Personally, I think that the Chinese government will make gradual compromises under the pressure of so much criticism," Li said.
"In the short term, [they will] just make some adjustments, [but] in the long term, I think that top-level strategists will eventually abolish family planning controls under public pressure," he said.
Under new rules currently being considered, couples will be allowed to have a second child if at least one parent is an only child.
Current policy, which has been in place since the late 1970s, only allows couples to have two children if both parents are the only children in their families.
Reforms a priority
The China Daily quoted commission spokesman Mao Qun’an as saying that central government officials were still looking at the options, and that population controls would remain "in the long term."
Mao said reforms to the rules were a priority, however.
"An update to the policy makes economic sense, because allowing more couples to have a second child could stem potential labor shortages in the future," the paper said.
It quoted Beijing University social demographics professor Lu Jiehua as saying that the changes would likely be rolled out in some trial locations later this year.
"Regions with a relatively higher proportion of [families with only one child] and a higher urbanization level are most likely to introduce the relaxation first," Lu told the paper.
But he added: "Decisions surrounding child-bearing, such as the size of the family, will not be determined by the family."
Last month, state media reprinted an article in Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper citing concerns that population controls are affecting China's military readiness.
Military analysts fear an aging population will shrink the pool of potential military recruits and warn that China's new generation of "little emperors," only children used to attracting all their family's attention and resources, make young Chinese people unsuited for conflict.
Fines and forced abortions
Under current family planning rules, urban families are limited to one child, while rural families are allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl.
But celebrities and members of China's political elite often get away with having larger families than most ordinary Chinese.
Many of China's political and financial elite can afford to pay the fines necessary to have large numbers of children, while people without money or connections like Shaanxi mother Feng Jianmei are routinely forced to terminate even very late-term pregnancies.
After a graphic photo of Feng and her dead baby posted online went viral in 2012, the government launched an investigation and had officials, who had demanded a 40,000 yuan (U.S. $6,440) fine from Feng, apologize to her.
Despite official investigation into and apologies over Feng's case, experts say forced abortions have been the norm for decades under the one-child policy.
Li said a network of vested interests had grown up around the policy since its inception, making it hard to remove at one stroke.
China collects 28 billion yuan (U.S. $4.4 billion) a year in fines and charges from enforcing the one-child policy, official figures show.
Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.