China’s top legislative committee yesterday formally approved a loosening of the country’s hugely controversial one-child policy and abolished “re-education through labor” camps, 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, Xinhua news agency said.
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 (勞教), will see existing inmates freed, Xinhua said.
“Their remaining terms will not be enforced any more,” it quoted the congressional resolution as saying.
China argues that its one-child limit kept population growth in check and supported the country’s rapid development, but enforcement of the policy has at times been excessive. The public was outraged last year when photographs circulated online of a woman forced to abort her baby.
Now China faces looming demographic challenges, including a rapidly increasing elderly population, a shrinking labor force and male-female imbalances.
China’s sex ratio has risen to 115 boys for every 100 girls, while the working population began to drop last year, Xinhua said earlier. The birthrate has fallen to about 1.5 since the 1990s, well below the replacement rate, it added.
While the easing of the policy has been welcomed, critics say that the state has retained the principle of deciding 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 document.
The end of the labor camps closes the curtain on a dark aspect of the country long criticized by rights groups and which Beijing admits is no longer viable.
China began re-education through labour 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 cited the development of China’s legal system as making the camps “superfluous,” with their “historical mission” completed, but campaigners question whether the move is just a cosmetic change and are watching out for new forms of control.