China eases one-child policy, abolishes ‘re-education’ labor camps


China’s top legislative committee formally approved a loosening of the country’s hugely controversial one-child policy Saturday and abolished camps for “re-education through labor,” state media reported.

The decisions were taken by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, at the conclusion of a six-day meeting, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The widening of existing exceptions to the one-child policy will allow couples where either parent has no siblings to have two children, reforming the strict family planning policy imposed more than three decades ago to prevent overpopulation in the world’s most populous nation.

The abolition of re-education through labor, known as “laojiao,” will see existing inmates freed, Xinhua reported. It quoted the congress’ resolution as saying, “Their remaining terms will not be enforced any more.”

China argues its one-child limit kept population growth in check and supported the country’s rapid development, which has seen it soar from mass poverty to become the world’s second-largest economy.

But enforcement of the policy has at times been excessive. The public was outraged last year when photos circulated online of a woman forced to abort her baby seven months into her pregnancy.

Now China faces looming demographic challenges, including a rapidly increasing elderly population, a shrinking labor force and male-female imbalances.

China’s gender ratio has risen to 115 boys for every 100 girls, while the working population began to drop last year. The birth rate has fallen to about 1.5 since the 1990s, well below the replacement rate, Xinhua said earlier.

While the easing of the one-child policy — with the new rules estimated to apply to around 10 million couples — has been welcomed, critics say the state has retained the principle of deciding itself how many children people should have.

Provincial congresses and their standing committees will decide on implementing the new policy “based on evaluation of local demographic situation and in line with the law on population and family planning as well as this resolution,” Xinhua said, citing the resolution.

The reforms are expected to come into force in the first quarter of 2014, according to a senior official from the National Health and Family Planning Commission, Xinhua reported last week.

The approval to end the labor camps, introduced more than half a century ago, closes the curtain on a dark aspect of the country’s modern history that has long been criticized by human rights groups and that Chinese authorities admit is no longer viable.

Re-education through labor began in 1957 as a speedy way to handle petty offenders. But the system, which allows a police panel to issue sentences of up to four years without trial, soon became rife with abuse.

State media have cited the development of China’s legal system as making the camps “superfluous,” with their “historical mission” having come to an end. A U.N. report published in 2009 estimated that 190,000 people were being held in the camps.

But activists played down the significance of the system’s abolition, pointing out that under Chinese law the authorities can still detain suspects for lengthy periods without a trial.

“Almost all the people I know who were staying at the camps have been released, starting from early this year,” said Zhao Guangjun, a former labor camp inmate and political activist based in Liaoning province. “Even if the labor camp system has been abolished, the government could still punish people by making them to stay longer in detention centers.”

Earlier this month, Amnesty International warned that the closure of the camps amounted to little more than cosmetic change, given that arbitrary detention will persist in unofficial “black jails,” drug rehabilitation centers and other facilities.

The decisions came just days after the standing committee had expressed support for them and following promises by the ruling Communist Party at its third plenum meeting last month. Legislative approval was formally required to put them into effect.

That meeting has historically been an occasion for the party to expand reforms, and was the first such gathering since Xi Jinping took over as head of the party in November last year as part of a once-a-decade hand over of power.

The party also pledged at the meeting to reduce the scope of the death penalty “step by step” — China is the world’s biggest judicial executioner — and to accelerate reforms to the household registration system and loosen controls on the economy by giving markets a “decisive” role in resource allocation.