BEIJING— China says that it plans to ease its one-child policy and abolish a controversial system of re-education through labor that often arbitrarily puts activists and those who would challenge the Communist Party behind bars. The announcement, along with other significant reforms, comes days after China wrapped up a key closed-door policy meeting in Beijing.
This week's summit was notable for the lack concrete detail that left many wondering just what the road ahead for reform in China would look like. But late Friday, the Communist Party revealed a more complete plan for reform from now until 2020.
The lengthy document outlined 60 tasks the party aims to tackle in that period. The wide-ranging reforms include long anticipated economic changes as well as cultural, political, social and environmental reforms.
According to the reform plans, China’s state-run companies will face more competition from private enterprises in the future and limits would be eased on foreign investments in areas such as e-commerce and other businesses.
For three decades, China’s economy has been booming. But this year it is expected to grow at its weakest pace in 23 years. The plans announced Friday mark one of China’s biggest economic overhauls since the early 1990s.
In addition to economic reforms, the plans will include changes to social policies that have long been a source of domestic as well as international criticism for China.
The Xinhua news agency reports that China will ease its one-child policy, which was first introduced in the late 1970s. According to the announcement, couples will now be allowed to have two children, if one of the parents is an only child.
Some activists have welcomed the changes, but noted the reforms failed to address basic problems that Chinese society now faces. China’s ruling Communist Party says it needs to slow population growth to conserve resources. But it is facing a dilemma as more Chinese retire and fewer enter the work place.
Chinese activist Yang Zhizhu says the proposed changes will continue to deny a basic human right and fail to address the country’s aging population.
“On the one hand, the government admits that the population is aging, but its birth control regulations fail to address that problem," he said. "The right to have children is something that has existed for thousands of years in the history of humanity."
Maya Wang (阿莲) is a China researcher with Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.
“The fact that couples, [if] either of which is a single child, can have one more child, these kind of families can have two children now, doesn’t take away the fact that the entire system continues to violate women’s rights, in particular reproductive rights. So the term loosening has to be used in a cautious way,” said Wang.
The proposed changes said little, however, about those families that have more than one child who is not officially registered with the government. Chinese citizens all carry an internal passport called a hukou that is necessary for access to education, healthcare and jobs.
Officials in China estimate that there are currently about 13 million Chinese who lack such documents.
In addition to announcing curbs on its one-child policy, the Communist Party says it would work step by step to reduce the number of crimes that are subject to the death penalty. The party also says that it would abolish its re-education through labor system to, as it puts it, “protect human rights.”
Under the current system, police can sentence alleged offenders to years in labor camps without a trial. It is unclear what will replace the camps, which are estimated to hold as many as 190,000 people.
The system has long been a source of controversy. Rights activists say it is an important means for authorities to suppress activists and those who would speak up.
Maya Wang from Human Rights Watch says, "People who complain about the government, political activists, people who write columns criticizing the Chinese government have all been sent to these facilities to punish them for their activism. So this is why the abolition of the re-education through labor system is significant.”
Wang adds, however, that this is just one way that the Chinese government punishes dissent and not necessarily a sign that it will stop using other methods to do the same.