China’s top legislative committee has formally approved a loosening of the country’s hugely controversial one-child policy and abolished “re-education through labour” camps, state media has reported.
The decisions were taken by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp parliament, on Saturday at the conclusion of a six-day meeting, according to Xinhua news agency.
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 labour, known as “laojiao”, will see existing inmates freed, Xinhua said.
“Their remaining terms will not be enforced any more,” it quoted the NPC resolution as saying.
China argues its one-child limit kept population growth in check and supported the country’s rapid development that has seen it soar from mass poverty to become the world’s second-largest economy.
But enforcement of the policy has at times been excessive. The public was outraged last year when photos circulated online of a woman forced to abort her baby seven months into her pregnancy.
Now China faces looming demographic challenges, including a rapidly increasing elderly population, a shrinking labour 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 birth rate has fallen to about 1.5 since the 1990s, well below the replacement rate, it added.
While the easing of the one-child policy – estimated to apply to around 10 million couples – has been welcomed, critics say that the state has retained the principle of deciding itself 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 one-child policy reforms are expected to come into force in the first quarter of 2014, according to a senior official from the National Health and Family Planning Commission, Xinhua reported last week.