(CNSNews.com) - A senior Chinese official has hinted at a review of the country's three decade-old "one-child" policy, but some critics aren't convinced that any shift will bring an end to coercive birth control practices.
The suggestion comes at a time when China is under considerable international pressure over its human rights record ahead of Beijing's hosting of the Olympic Games in the summer.
Zhao Baige, vice minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, was quoted as telling a news conference Thursday said officials recognized the need to ease family-size restrictions "incrementally."
"I cannot answer at what time or how [the changes will occur], but this has become a big issue among decision-makers," she said, adding that studies were underway into the social and environmental impact of such a move.
Introduced in the 1970s, the policy limits couples to having one child. Exceptions are made in some cases. For instance, ethnic minorities or couples living in rural areas may have a second child if their firstborn is a girl.
Officially, compliance is enforced by way of financial incentives and punitive fines. According to human rights researchers and the U.S. government, however, it has also been characterized at times by forced abortion, compulsory sterilization, and other abuses by family planning commission officials.
Beijing regularly hails the policy as a success, saying the country's 1.3 billion population would be larger by hundreds of millions -- and poorer -- if not for the restrictions. But it also has led to a skewed gender ratio in a society where boys are preferred for traditional and economic reasons.
Population control legislation that came into effect in 2002 outlawed the abuse of ultrasound scans to determine gender, and so facilitate sex-selective abortions.
But the gender ratio in China is still close to 120 boys for every 100 girls, compared to the international norm of 103-107 boys for every 100 girls.
The policy also is leading to a rapidly aging population, which has massive future implications in a country without an effective social security blanket, demographers report.
The total fertility rate -- the average number of children born to women during the reproductive years of 15-44 -- has dropped from almost six in the early 1970s to about 1.8 today. The fertility level deemed necessary for maintaining a stable population is 2:1.
Last month, the National Population and Family Planning Commission warned, not for the first time, that it would increase fines levied against "celebrities and wealthy people" who violate the population control policies.
Xinhua cited a survey conducted by China Youth Newspaper indicating resentment against wealthy citizens who flout the law because they are able to afford the fines -- which, at up to 10 times the local per-capita income, are crippling for ordinary people.
More than 60 percent of respondents in the survey said it was unfair that the affluent could afford to breach the regulations.
Zhao and other top officials at the National Population and Family Planning Commission are typically upbeat about the "success" of the program, and Thursday's comments appear to mark a shift in mood.
She was quoted as saying that as a result of China's economic growth, many young women now want two children.
Reggie Littlejohn, an American attorney who advises the Brussels-based non-governmental organization, Human Rights Without Frontiers, on China policy, voiced skepticism Thursday.
"Right now, the one-child policy is often implemented by forced abortion and forced sterilization," she said. "Even if some couples in the future are allowed to have more than one child under the new policy, will the government still enforce that higher birth limit through coerced abortion and sterilization?"
Littlejohn, who has represented Chinese refugees in political asylum cases in the U.S., noted that the official had not said the policy would end - only that the government would study the possibility of an incremental shift over a number of years.
"The timing of this announcement is no accident," she said, pointing to the increased attention currently on China's rights record at home and abroad.
"With the Olympics in Beijing just a few months away, and with China under fire concerning the Darfur situation [China is a close ally of Sudan] and other human rights atrocities, I'm sure that the Chinese government is eager to deflect attention onto a possible softening of its controversial one-child policy."
"For me, the real question is not, 'Will the Chinese government abolish the one-child policy,'" Littlejohn said. "The real question is, 'Will the Chinese government abolish its coercive birth-control practices?"
Earlier this week, the Chinese government agreed during talks with visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to resume stalled human rights dialogue with the U.S.
Beijing suspended the dialogue in protest after the U.S. in 2004 submitted a resolution critical of China's human rights record at an annual meeting of the top U.N. rights body.
President Bush told reporters Thursday that he would raise human rights concerns with Chinese President Hu Jintao when he visits Beijing for the Olympics.
The Bush administration withholds funding from the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) because of its association with the Chinese population control programs. U.S. law prohibits funding for any agency that "supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization."
The UNFPA denies that it supports coercive practices in China, saying that in the counties where it operates, the aim is to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions.
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