Rome (AsiaNews) - The Standing Committee of the National People's Assembly today adopted a resolution loosening the country's one-child policy. It also formally abolished Re-education through labour camps, also known as laojiao centres.
Since 1979, China has implemented, often with violence, a policy of one child per family in order to boost the nation's economic development. Ethnic groups and farmers were later allowed to have two children if the first was a baby girl, but the law was often enforced with violence. Violators often received huge fines, or had to submit to forced sterilisation and late pregnancy abortions.
With family planning officials and managers receiving rewards for implementing the law and meeting quotas, corruption and abuse of power followed.
Although in recent years, ordinary Chinese have used the Internet to voice their criticism against the violence perpetrated on parents and their offspring, changes to the one-child policy appear tied to demographic trends and the policy's psychological impact.
On the one hand, the overall population is expected to drop by 3.45 million per year, leaving many factories without needed workers. An aging of the population will mean that by 2050 more than a quarter of China's population will be over 65 years old, driving up social and health care costs.
On the other, due to a preference for boys and the resulting widespread practice of sex-selective abortions, China's sex ratio rose to 115 boys for every 100 girls. Over the next few years, China will thus have 24 million "leftover men" who, because of China's gender imbalance, will not be able to find a wife.
Various scientists have been calling for some time for the one-child policy to be scrapped. Concerned about a declining labour force, the authorities in Guangdong and Shanghai have also called for two children per family
The new more liberal policy will now allow couples where one partner is already an only child to have two children. At least ten million couples will be affected by it with "only a slight increase in births" according to Xinhua.
Reining in state power in matters of population control does not mean taking it away. "Easing the one-child policy does not mean an end to family planning," said NPC Standing Committee member Chi Wanchun.
Similarly, "We cannot risk the population growing out of control," said Jiang Fan, an NPC deputy and member of the NPC Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee
The guidelines should be phased in gradually by provincial authorities according to local demographic conditions.
With laojiao's abolition, one of the harshest and most arbitrary systems of violation of human rights would disappear. Used against political leaders, pro-democracy dissidents, Catholic bishops and priests, Protestants, members of the Falun Gong movement, the system had even come in for criticism by the United Nations, which had repeatedly called for its abolition.
The Re-education through labour system was set up in 1957 as a speedy way to handle petty offenders. But it was soon used to crack down on the Communist Party's political enemies and on people who strayed from its path, giving police the power to hold anyone under "administrative detention" for up to four years without trial and without notification to their families.
In laojiao centres, in addition to forced labour, prisoners had to attend political sessions to be "re-educated" in accordance with the values of a socialist society "with Chinese characteristics".
A 2009 UN Human Rights Council report estimated that some 190,000 people were held in 320 labour centres across the country. At the start of this year, 260 labour camps held 160,000 inmates.
Announced earlier this year, laojiao's abolition only began today, following the meeting of the Third Plenum of the Communist Party last November.
In Hebei province, Catholics hope that Bishops James Su Zhimin of Baoding and Cosma Shi Enxiang of Yixian, as well as Fr Joseph Lu, vicar general of Baoding, will be released with the end of laojiao camps. The clergymen have been in police custody for 15, 12, and 9 years respectively.
At least ten more clergymen from the underground Church are in laojiao centres for celebrating Mass in unregistered locations, or teaching catechism or holding retreats for young people. Some of the imprisoned priests have suffered serious physical and psychological harm as a result of torture.
Under the Standing Committee's resolution, all legal laojiao penalties imposed before the abolition of the system remain valid. People who are released will thus not be able to suit their jailers.
According to Yang Huanning, vice minister of public security, amendments to the Criminal Law and new laws on public security and drugs have gradually rendered the laojiao redundant.
Still, various human rights organisations are concerned that laojiao's abolition is only cosmetic, and that it would be replaced by other forms of control and isolation.
The dismantling of the laojiao system does not in fact change China's policy of "administrative detention," which grants the police the power to detain people without trial.
In recent weeks - and this is just one example - new "black jails" were discovered in Beijing where people who had come to the capital to deliver petitions demanding justice were held for months.