China rolls back one-child policy, plans to scrap labor camps

Major social reforms announced by ruling Communist Party at end of closed-door meeting

Two boys playing in Beijing in 2012.
Wang Zhao/AFP/GettyImages

China will loosen its decades-old one-child policy and abolish a much-criticized labor-camp system, the ruling Communist Party said Friday.

The official Xinhua news agency said the party announced the changes in a policy document after a key, four-day meeting of party leaders that ended Tuesday in Beijing.

Under the new family-planning rules, couples may have two children if just one of the parents is an only child. China's one-child policy currently limits most urban couples to one child and allows two children for rural families if their firstborn is a girl. Previously, both parents had to be only children to qualify for a two-children exemption.

The labor camp — or "re-education through labor" — system was established to punish early critics of the Communist Party but now is used by local officials to deal with people challenging their authority on issues including land rights and corruption.

Under the system, people can be sent for up to four years of "re-education" by a police panel, without a trial or even court appearance. It was introduced in 1957 as a faster method of handling minor offenses.

A 2009 United Nations report estimated that 190,000 Chinese people were locked up in such facilities.

Life in the camps can vary widely, but many prisoners face extremely long work days manufacturing goods or doing agricultural work, the Duihua Foundation, a U.S.-based rights group, said in a report.

A dialogue on reform

Pressure for the changes announced Friday has been building for years. 

Last year, a 23-year-old mother from China's northwestern Shaanxi Province underwent a forced abortion, when she failed to pay family planning officials the $6,300 fine necessary to have a second child. 

Images of Feng Jianmei beside her aborted fetus went viral on Chinese Twitter-like social media site Sina Weibo, prompting a larger discussion on the forced abortions used by local family planning officials to enforce the one-child policy

The policy's opponents have argued that China's population is aging, and that a diminishing labor force could represent a major blow to the Chinese economy. Proponents have pointed to fierce competition for employment in China's big cities and diminishing natural resources as a few reasons to maintain the measure.

As with the One-Child Policy, changes to China's labor-camp system come after years of debate.  

The national parliament has considered reforming the system since at least 2005 but has not passed legislation to do so.

In a high-profile case in August last year, Tang Hui, a mother from central Hunan province, was sentenced to a labor camp for petitioning repeatedly after her 11-year-old daughter was kidnapped and forced to work as a prostitute.

Tang had sought accountability for police officers who she said aided the culprits. She was freed after just over a week after a public outcry.

The next month a man in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing — who served two years in a labor camp for mocking an aggressive campaign that put thousands of people behind bars — was ruled by a local panel to have been sentenced unlawfully.

After China's new leadership under Xi Jinping took charge of the Communist Party in November last year, speculation about possible reform mounted.

State media said in January that the system would be abolished, but the reports were swiftly deleted and replaced with predictions of reform, with few details and no timetable.

Four pilot cities replaced "re-education" with a system called "illegal behavior rectification through education," the Beijing News said later, without explaining the differences between the two systems.

Premier Li Keqiang said at a major gathering of the national parliament in March that details might be unveiled by the end of the year.

It was not immediately clear Friday what the new system would entail.

But analysts say the abolition of the old system could face resistance because local governments profit from products made by camp prisoners and rely on the threat of punishment to keep social order.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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