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Beijing (AFP) – China’s Communist rulers announced an easing of the country’s controversial one-child policy as part of a raft of sweeping pledges unveiled Friday including the abolition of its “re-education” labor camps and loosening controls on the economy.

The moves — also including reductions on the application of the death penalty — were contained in a 22,000-word document on “major issues concerning comprehensively deepening reforms” released by official Xinhua news agency, three days after a key meeting of the Communist leadership in Beijing.

The gathering, known as the Third Plenum, has historically been the venue for major reform announcements, and comes one year after new leaders under Xi Jinping took charge of the ruling party.

Couples will be allowed to have two children if one of the parents is an only child — widening the exceptions to a rule introduced in the late 1970s to control China’s population, the world’s largest.

The policy has at times been brutally enforced, with authorities relying on permits, fines and, in some cases forced sterilisations and late-term abortions, with pictures of the results causing horrified reactions.

Critics also argue that it has contributed to the gender imbalance in China, where sex-specific abortions remain common.

Almost 118 boys were born for every 100 girls in 2012, and female infanticide and the abandoning of baby girls have also been reported.

At the same time census officials warned earlier this year 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.

“The birth policy will be adjusted and improved step by step to promote ‘long-term balanced development of the population in China’,” Xinhua said, citing the party decision.

The law currently restricts most parents to one child although many receive exceptions, for example, some rural families whose first child is a girl, ethnic minorities, and couples who are both only children.

Joan Kaufman, director of the Columbia Global Centers in Beijing and an expert on public health policy, called the relaxation a “long overdue” move that will ease concerns about the support of China’s elderly population.

“There’s no concern about overpopulation in China anymore. … Couples are having fewer kids. They’re not replacing themselves,” she said, noting that the current fertility rate is well below the “replacement” rate of 2.1.

China will also abolish its controversial “re-education through labor” system, under which police panels can sentence offenders to years in camps without a trial, Xinhua said.

The move was “part of efforts to improve human rights and judicial practices”, which also included reducing “step by step” the number of crimes subject to the death penalty and working to ban confessions extracted through torture.

The deeply unpopular labour camp system, known as “laojiao”, is largely used for petty offenders but is also blamed for widespread rights abuses by corrupt officials seeking to punish whistleblowers and those who try to complain about them to higher authorities.

Under the scheme, which was introduced in 1957, people can be sent for up to four years’ “re-education” by a police panel, without a court appearance.

A 2009 United Nations report estimated that 190,000 Chinese 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 US-based rights group, said in a report.

Pressure for change in the system has been building for years.

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.

Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang called the move a positive step but cautioned about waiting to see what system would replace it — details of which were not revealed on Friday.

Other forms of extralegal detention remained in place, she added, including petitioners routinely thrown into unofficial “black jails” and drug users forced into drug rehabilitation camps.

“On the other hand the suppression of dissent continues,” she said, and “there are a number of other systems of illegal detention that continue to be used”.

The economic reforms announced on Friday pointed to authorities loosening their grip on the world’s second-largest economy, which experts say requires dramatic restructuring to ensure long-term growth.

The plans include requiring state firms to pay larger dividends to the government, and allowing private companies a bigger role in the economy, Xinhua said.

“This will have an effect on facilitating a better competitive environment,” ANZ Banking Group economist Liu Ligang said, adding it would make cash-rich SOEs allocate funds more rationally.

About 370 members of the party’s Central Committee gathered for the Third Plenum, which in 1978 introduced fundamental economic reforms that ushered in decades of breakneck growth and transformed the country.

AFP Photo/Peter Parks

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