BEIJING – China announced Friday that it would relax – but not abolish – its decades-old one-child policy and scrap its much-criticized system of labor camps.
The changes relaxed some harsh measures that dated back to the time of Communist China’s founding father, Mao Zedong. Human rights groups said the changes to the one-child policy were disappointingly limited. But they praised the decision to get rid of labor camps as a step in the right direction for the 8-month-old government of President Xi Jinping.
The policy changes were announced after a meeting of top Communist Party officials, who also grappled with reforms designed to revitalize China’s slowing economy.
The new family-planning policy states that if either member of a couple is an only child, the couple may have two children. The change means that most young Chinese couples may now have two children, if they wish.
Couples in which both partners are only children – common in Chinese cities – have long been allowed to have a second child, however, and rural families are also allowed to do so if their first child is a girl. Many urban couples prefer to have only one child because the rising costs of housing and education make it difficult to afford multiple children.
For all these reasons, demographers say, relaxing the policy is unlikely to cause a significant rise in the country’s 1.3 billion population.
There could be a slight rise, but this policy will not cause a dramatic growth in the birthrate, said Li Jianmin, a population professor at Nankai University.
China enacted the controversial one-child policy in 1980 to rein in runaway population growth. Internal debate about relaxing the policy has intensified in the face of an aging population and looming labor shortage.
Human rights groups, who for years have exposed forced abortions, infanticide and involuntary sterilizations being propagated under the policy, had wanted the policy abolished altogether.
One-child policy reform really falls short, said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. The whole system needs to be dismantled. What they’re doing is just tinkering with it, allowing one specific category of people to have two children.
And it’s being done mostly for demographic reasons and not because the system is abusive and generates so much pain for so many.
The one-child policy reshaped Chinese society – with birthrates plunging from 4.77 children per woman in the early 1970s to 1.64 in 2011, according to United Nations estimates – and contributed to the world’s most unbalanced sex ratio at birth, with boys far outnumbering girls.
Bequelin hailed the decision to scrap Chinese labor camps as definitely a positive step.
The re-education through labor system was introduced under Mao in the 1950s as a way to deal with political enemies. Statistics are hard to come by, but according to the government, 160,000 people were held in 350 such facilities in 2008.
Stories abound of the harsh conditions at the camps: sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures, regular beatings, barely edible food and little respite from the relentless pace of factory work.
Labor camps were a tool of the police, used against religious groups, political dissidents, anyone they wanted and in terms of rule of law. It was incredibly damaging to the integrity of the criminal law system, said Bequelin.
The key question, he added, is whether China plans to replace its labor camps with another system that will still allow police to imprison suspects without a trial.
Xi’s own father was sacked as vice premier during China’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and was imprisoned for seven years. The abolition of the labor camps is believed to be something for which the younger Xi personally advocated – over significant internal opposition from within the Communist Party.