The one-child policy is such a cornerstone of contemporary China that when word got out late last week that Shanghai was encouraging some couples to have more offspring, it made headlines around the world. But on July 25, the same Chinese family-planning official whose remarks set off speculation denied that Shanghai was taking its first steps to reverse the much-hated policy. Apparently reacting to numerous overseas media reports of a change in city birth-control regulations, which was portrayed as being the first sign of a reversal, Xie Lingli was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying that a citywide policy of allowing couples in which each partner is an only child to have two children had been in place for many years. She also emphasized that the Shanghai city government's family-planning office would never actively encourage any new measure that was counter to national policy.

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. (See pictures of China's infrastructure boom.)

"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. (See pictures of China's sports schools.)

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."