BEIJING — First they said they might do it, then they said they wouldn't. Now it seems more of a definite maybe.
At issue is the sensitive question of how best to control the growth of the largest population on Earth.
Over the weekend, an official said China was considering making changes to its one-child policy, but didn't offer any specifics. The statement by Wu Jianmin, a spokesman for the advisory body to the Chinese parliament, appeared to echo comments made last week by a senior family planning official.
State media, however, said that Zhao Baige, vice minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, had been misquoted, leading to confusion over the future of one of the world's most extreme family planning measures.
"The one-child policy was the only choice we had, given the conditions when we initiated the policy," Wu said Sunday. "So as things develop, there might be some changes to the policy, and relevant departments are considering this."
Vague as it is, the message may be an example of how China plans to deflect criticism of its human rights record in the months before the Olympic Games. Few expect Beijing to allow China's 1.3 billion people to multiply as they wish. But observers say government officials are probably serious about reevaluating the family planning rules, even if they prefer to do it in secret.
"There definitely will be changes in the future. The question is when and what is the most appropriate way to get there," said Lu Jiehua, a population studies expert at Peking University.
After three decades, China's one-child policy is in some ways already a misnomer.
In the countryside, where the majority of the Chinese people live, families are generally allowed to have two children, especially if the first is a girl. Some ethnic minorities are allowed to have more than that.
The rules are stricter in the cities. But a generation of only children is reaching child-bearing age, and its members are permitted to have two.
Families who don't fit any of those categories but can afford the stiff fines have long skirted the rules. So have those without the means who are willing to risk their jobs and benefits.
In the early days, late-term abortions and mass sterilization campaigns were common, and the campaign did serious damage to China's image. The upside for the government is 400 million fewer births and an improved standard of living for the poor.
One downside, however, is another potential demographic bomb. China is grappling with a sharp imbalance in the ratio of males to females because the quest for boys led to selective abortions. Millions of men face the prospect of being unable to find a wife, raising the prospect of an increase in the trafficking of women.
A graying population means fewer young people will be left to pay taxes and care for the old. The low birthrate also threatens to erode a key economic advantage, an abundant supply of cheap labor.
The Chinese government realizes there is room to modify the policy, said Victor Yuan, a Beijing-based independent pollster, but doesn't want to relax the rules too quickly.
Some believe that even if Beijing scrapped all restrictions, families would not have as many children as they once did.
As more rural residents move to cities, the pressure to make a living is likely to encourage smaller families.
"I think maybe in 10 years' time we will see a turning point, where people's behavior will have changed sufficiently that there is no need to force them to have fewer children," Yuan said.
Critics say they don't want to wait that long.
"There is no democratic process to talk about whether or not we should change the policy," said Teng Biao, a Beijing lawyer. "But forced abortions are still going on, and the pressure to control population is still a severe problem."