Announcing sweeping policy changes, China said Friday that it will ease a controversial one-child policy, abolish "re-education" labor camps, loosen controls on the economy and reduce application of the death penalty as part of President Xi Jinping's "comprehensive deepening reforms."
The official Xinhua news agency said the package of reforms was agreed upon at the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Third Plenary Session of the Central Committee held from Nov. 9 to 12 in Beijing.
"Reform and opening-up will decide the destiny of modern China," Xinhua quoted Xi, who chaired the meeting, as saying. "It is also the key to realizing the dream of national rejuvenation," he said.
In the first significant easing of the world's most populous country's one-child policy in nearly 30 years, Beijing said it would allow couples to have two children if one of the parents is an only child.
The birth policy "will be adjusted and improved step by step" to promote "long-term balanced development of the population in China." No other details were provided.
At present, the law restricts most parents to having one child although many receive exceptions. Urban couples are permitted a second child if both parents do not have siblings and rural couples are allowed to have two children if their first-born is a girl. The policy has also some flexibility for ethnic minorities.
Couples violating the policy, which experts say has created an aging crisis and gender imbalance, face large fines, seizure of their property and loss of their jobs.
Strict birth controls have also led to forced abortions and sterilizations by local officials.
Following the one-child policy, census officials have warned that China's working-age population had begun to shrink for the first time in recent decades, falling by about 3.45 million to 937 million in 2012.
'Cannot be abolished overnight'
Nongovernmental organizations in China monitoring abuses under the policy welcomed the changes but wondered whether they can stem the negative demographic trends which had undermined economic growth and contributed to a rapidly aging population the country had no hope of supporting financially.
"We all know it cannot be abolished overnight," Cheng Yuan, director of Nanjing based NGO "Justice for all," told RFA's Mandarin Service, noting that "the family planning policy has become a subject of heated public debate" since its introduction in the late 1970s to prevent population growth from spiraling out of control.
Wang Guangzhou, a demographer from top government think-tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, estimated the new policy would affect 30 million women of child-bearing age in a country which has nearly 1.4 billion people, Reuters news agency reported.
Wu Youshui, a lawyer from China's eastern coastal Zhejiang province, told RFA while the new two-child policy is "a step forward," it is "far from enough to solve China's population crisis.
"The population problem facing China is not a high birth rate but a dwindling population," he said. "Even if China allows couples to have two children if one parent is an only child, it is still not enough to boost the economy in the long run."
"To solve this problem, China's family planning policy needs to be abolished," Wu said, adding that he believed Beijing would "further loosen its family planning policy in 2-3 years."
Nanjing-based women's rights activist He Peirong, popularly known by her nickname "Pearl," said the policy shift did not mean an end to rights abuses in family planning measures.
"This is a slight relaxation of the policy. We are concerned it still infringes on some people's rights," she said.
Unpopular labor camp system
Xinhua said the Communist Party leaders also decided to abolish the deeply unpopular "re-education through labor" system, under which police panels can sentence offenders to years in camps without a trial.
The 1957-introduced scheme, known as "Laojiao," is largely used for petty offenders but blamed for widespread rights abuses by corrupt officials seeking to punish whistle-blowers and those who try to complain about them to higher authorities.
Although the Party made the decision to scrap the scheme, Xinhua said it "will not be formally abolished until the top legislature amends the laws."
Yi Xiangde, research fellow with the Institute of Law of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Xinhua that both the courts and government will also have to issue new rules.
"We will need judicial explanations on how to punish minor offenders. The Ministry of Justice will need to speed up community correction programs to fill in the blanks after the Laojiao program is abolished," Yi said.
Yang Jianli, a Chinese dissident who founded the U.S.-based Initiatives for China, said the abolition did not signal any political reforms.
For a long time, the "re-education through labor' system was used by the Communist Party "as a weapon to persecute political dissidents," he told RFA. "[T]he core value of Chinese political reform is still questionable."
Zhang Yu, a Swiss-based member of the Independent Chinese Pen, said the labor camp system was illegal.
"According to the law, you may be sentenced to half a year [for committing a certain crime] but under the labor camp system, you can be sentenced to 3 years and then it can be extended by one more year. This is illegal detention."
Those detained under the policy were locked up in one of 350 labor camps throughout the country that can house about 160,000
inmates, according to Xinhua.
A 2009 United Nations report however estimates 190,000 Chinese have been locked up under the system, where many prisoners face extremely long work days manufacturing goods or doing agricultural work.
But earlier this year, state broadcaster CCTV said China has 310 labor camps holding about 310,000 prisoners and employing 100,000 staff.
Death penalty review
The Party also decided to gradually reduce the number of crimes subject to the death penalty.
The number of crimes subject to death penalty would be reduced "step by step," Xinhua said, without giving details.
The reforms will also "further improve the penalties for criminal acts and corrective legislation and improve the community correction system," it added.
The economic reforms announced on Friday require state firms to pay larger dividends to the government, and allow private companies a bigger role in the economy, Xinhua said.
China would also accelerate capital account convertibility, scrap residency restrictions in small cities and townships, integrate urban and rural social security systems and push forward with an environmental tax, among other measures.
Reported by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated by Shiny Li, He Ping and Lucy Lu. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.