Even before the 17th congress of the Chinese Communist Party began last week in Beijing, it was clear that at least one rule was not going to change: the one-child policy.
"Because China has worked hard over the last 30 years, we have 400 million fewer people," said Zhang Weiqing, minister in charge of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, earlier this year.
In the eyes of the policy's supporters, that number justifies the infringements on people's freedoms that are involved. True, a few million women were dragged off to have forced abortions in the bad old days, but now it's much more civilized. Besides, the end justifies the means, doesn't it?
Not having over 2 billion people 20 years from now is clearly a desirable outcome for China. Even with decades of high-speed economic growth, there is a limit to how many people China can feed, clothe and house. But did the regime really have to impose such a draconian birth-control policy?
Doubters point out that the Chinese government's "soft" birth-control policy in the 1970s encouraging later marriage, fewer births and longer birth intervals brought the total fertility rate down from 5.7 in 1970 to 2.9 by 1979.
Critics also point to the India experience, where an early experiment with enforced birth-control measures in the 1970s provoked such a backlash that nobody has dared to suggest it since. And yet, they argue, India's birth rate also plummeted over the subsequent generation. From a total fertility rate of 6.3 in 1960, it has fallen to only 2.8 this year. The famous "demographic transition" from high-birth-rate, high-death-rate societies, to older, lower-birth-rate communities still works its magic eventually. But it does take its time.
India and China started out in the 1960s with very similar fertility rates, and at that time China's population (648 million) was much higher than India's (433 million). By 1980, China's fertility rate was already down to the rate that prevails in India today. Its hardline policy has caused the rate to drop even further, to little more than half the current Indian fertility rate. If China had taken India's approach, its population would probably reach 2 billion before it stopped growing. For every two Chinese in the country at present, there would be three instead. That could easily be the margin between success and disaster. China's economic miracle (10 per cent growth for the past two decades) skates permanently along the edge of environmental calamity.
Just breathing the air in Beijing is the equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes a day. The country has lost almost 7 per cent of its farmland to development in the past decade. Dozens of cities are already experiencing severe water shortages. It's bad enough with the present population of 1.3 billion. But because of China's one-child policy, infanticide has reached plague proportions. Girls are in such short supply that by 2010 an estimated 37 million young Chinese men will have no prospect of ever finding a wife.
There have been relaxations in the policy over the years ethnic minorities are largely exempt from the rule, and rural families whose first child is female are allowed a second try but almost two-thirds of Chinese families really do have only one child.
Most ecologists would say China is well beyond its long-term "carrying capacity" even with its present population. Maybe the government is actually listening to them. Maybe it also knows that climate change will not be kind to China.
There are worse things than a one-child policy. Famine, social disintegration and civil war, for example.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.