Mainland officials in charge of statistics are not known for flagging areas of concern when they meet the press at regular briefings and present the latest economic data. Instead, they always try to highlight positive numbers, while glossing over the disappointing figures.
So it came as a bit of a surprise when Ma Jiantang, the head of the National Bureau of Statistics, urged reporters to pay attention to figures showing that the total size of the working population, aged 15 to 59, fell last year by 3.45 million, to 937 million. He stressed that this was the first such decline in recent history.
After being pressed by reporters, he said he wasn't denying that he was concerned about the decline, and he carefully worded his reply by saying that, while the mainland should stick to its national family-planning policy, it should also consider "appropriate and scientific" changes.
Ma's carefully worded concerns, broadcast live on national television and online, will no doubt ignite a new round of debate over the mainland's highly controversial one-child policy.
The fact that Ma is a high-ranking official should further bolster the calls for change by opponents of the policy, by showing that support for change is also growing within the Communist Party leadership.
It is interesting to note that Ma voiced his concerns just two days after the National Population and Family Planning Commission held its annual conference, in which officials vowed to unswervingly uphold family planning as a long-term fundamental national policy. The statement released after the conference suggested that the central government doesn't have any immediate plans to relax the policy.
That is too bad.
It is high time for mainland leaders to heed Ma's call and set up task forces to study how to further relax the rigid family-planning policy in the short term, such as by changing it to a "two-child" policy.
To be sure, mainland academics have mounted a long campaign to persuade central authorities to relax and even abolish the policy, and the chorus has been growing louder in recent years, particularly after the mainland's latest census, from 2010, showed that the country's population was ageing rapidly while its growth rate had fallen sharply.
Many academics have argued that China's "population dividend" is ending, as the population gets older and the pool of younger workers shrinks, as reflected in frequent reports of labour shortages in booming industrial towns along coastal regions.
Those academics argued that the government should relax the one-child policy in order to create new demographic dividends to sustain China's economic growth.
In recent years, some provinces such as Guangdong, which is constantly facing a labour shortage, have persistently lobbied the central government to relax the policy, but little progress has been reported.
Moreover, the enforcement of the policy has caused China to suffer immensely, both socially and politically, by resulting in social conflicts, high administrative costs and a serious gender imbalance. Internationally, the policy has tarnished the image of China, making it the target of human rights and religious groups worldwide.
In fact, it would not be difficult for the central government to relax the one-child policy to allow all couples to have two children, because that is already allowed for certain groups of people.
Under pressure, the government has already allowed second children for ethnic minorities, rural couples whose first child is a girl, and couples in which both partners are only children.
It is an open secret that the country's rich and powerful have managed to have two or more children through legal means such as acquiring foreign citizenship or by simply breaching the regulations without suffering any consequences.
Several top Chinese leaders who constantly vow to uphold the one-child policy in public speeches are believed to have breached the family-planning regulations, as they have more grandchildren than is allowed.
The concern that any relaxation would lead to a massive resurgence in birth rates is valid, but it is unlikely to happen given the rising costs of raising a child on the mainland.