The reports in question were sparked by remarks Xie had made to the official media that appeared to point to a policy shift designed to address the drain that Shanghai's aging population could have on the city's economy. "We advocate eligible couples to have two kids because it can help reduce the proportion of the aging people and alleviate a workforce shortage in the future," Xie, who is director of the Shanghai Population and Family Planning Commission, was quoted as saying. The report also stated that family-planning officials and volunteers would begin to make home visits and slip leaflets under doorways to encourage eligible couples to have a second child and that emotional and financial counseling would be provided to the families.
"The policy that a couple who are both the only child in their families can have a second child has been around for years," says Wang Feng, professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, who is currently lecturing at Shanghai's Fudan University. "The Shanghai government is doing nothing more than reiterating an old policy, but by doing so, it's calling attention to this political hot potato."
Xie's apparent backpedaling over the weekend underscores the sensitivity of the one-child policy in China. First introduced in 1979 as a measure to rein in China's booming population, the law has faced widespread opposition from its first day. Because local levels of compliance with the law make up an important part of whether district bureaucrats get promoted, officials have often turned to harsh tactics — including forced sterilization and late-term abortion — to enforce compliance.
In her original remarks, Xie noted that Shanghai will soon have to deal with a rapidly aging population. About 22% of the city's residents are over age 60 — a figure that is projected to rise to 34% by 2020. The same looming problem faces China as a whole, says Wang, who points out that the number of young people entering the workforce between the ages of 20 and 24 will drop by half in the next decade. Like many other population experts outside China, Wang believes it is only a matter of time before the pressure to change the one-child policy is irresistible. "The government should eliminate the moral barrier that's been imposed by propaganda over the past 30 years for a couple to have a second child," says Wang. "China should learn the lessons from other Asian countries and start acting now before it's too late."