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Originally published November 15, 2013 at 8:50 PM | Page modified November 15, 2013 at 10:56 PM

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China easing up on its one-child policy

Changes China announced Friday offered the promise of a country driven by market forces, with a stronger rule of law, but still firmly under the grip of the Communist Party.

The Washington Post

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BEIJING — President Xi Jinping announced Friday the most sweeping package of economic, social and legal reforms in China in decades, including a relaxation of the country’s “one-child” policy and the scrapping of its much-criticized system of labor camps.

The changes rolled back harsh social policies that dated back to Communist China’s two most eminent leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, while cementing Xi’s hold on power. It offered the promise of a country driven by market forces, with a stronger rule of law, but still firmly under the grip of the Communist Party.

“This is the most market-oriented and the most comprehensive package of reforms in two decades,” said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

The measures, announced after a meeting of top party officials, promised to address some of the roots of China’s growing unrest by giving peasant farmers a greater share of the benefits of the nation’s economic boom, with more rights to sell land and settle permanently in cities.

But there is to be no relaxation of the Communist Party’s overarching control of China, and efforts to stamp out dissent and “manage” the Internet could be intensified.

The new family-planning policy states that if either member of a couple is an only child, the couple may have two children. The change means most young Chinese couples can now have second children, if they wish.

Couples where both partners are only children — common in Chinese cities — have long been allowed to have a second child, however, and rural families are also allowed to do so if their first child is a girl, so demographers say relaxing the policy is unlikely to cause a significant rise in the country’s 1.3 billion population.

“There could be a slight rise, but this policy will not cause a dramatic growth in the birthrate,” said Li Jianmin, a population professor at Nankai University.

China enacted the one-child policy in 1980 in an effort to rein in runaway population growth. Internal debate about relaxing the policy has intensified in the face of an aging population and looming shortage of labor.

Human-rights groups, which have consistently exposed forced abortions, infanticide and involuntary sterilizations being propagated under the policy, had wanted the policy abolished altogether.

“One-child policy reform really falls short,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “The whole system needs to be dismantled.”

But he hailed the decision to scrap Chinese labor camps as “definitely a positive step.”

The “re-education through labor” system was introduced under Mao in the 1950s to lock away political opponents, and it expanded into a system of incarceration holding more than 100,000 people, many of them working in prison factories and on farms.

Sentences are determined by the police, and defendants have scant chance to appeal imprisonment that can last up to four years.

The key question, Bequelin said, is whether China plans to replace its labor camps with another system that would still allow police to imprison suspects without a trial.

Potentially more significant than the closing of the camps was a promise to “explore the establishment of a judicial system that is properly separate from the local administration” and extend the use of the jury system. Saying that most people were dissatisfied with miscarriages of justice, Xi called judicial reform one of the “key points” of his reform plan.

He Bing of the China University of Political Science and Law called that reform “revolutionary.”

Xi also promised to grant more property rights to peasants, who are often forced off collectively owned land with minimal compensation to make way for development, a major source of social unrest.

He also pledged to relax China’s strict registration system to allow rural residents to settle permanently in smaller cities for the first time. Current rules have created a vast underclass of rural migrant workers, unable to access social-welfare benefits available to permanent urbanites.

The document Xi issued Friday was released three days after the conclusion of the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party. Written under the direct supervision of Xi, it appeared to further consolidate his powers through a new State Security

Specific plans were announced to make market forces — rather than the government — determine the price of water, petroleum, natural gas, electricity, transportation and telecommunications.

Material from The New York Times is included in this report.

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