China eases one-child policy

China has relaxed its one-child policy and put an end to notorious labour camps in a sweeping reform plan aimed at stabilising the population.

The changes were agreed at the annual meeting of the Communist Party's top 400 leaders held in Beijing, Chinese state media reported.

The reforms include the birth policy, starting with allowing families where just one parent is a single child to have a second child.

Communist Party chief Xi Jinping said reforms were the only way to unify the public and to enable the country to compete with capitalism.

"To push forward sustainable, healthy economic and social development, there is no other way but to deepen reforms and opening up," Xi said.

The reform would most likely be carried out in phases, starting in provinces with low birth rates, such as the eastern part of the country, before going nationwide.

The policy change was expected to affect urban residents born in the 1970s only, because rural residents were already allowed to have a second child if their first-born was a girl.

Urban residents born in the 1980s and 1990s are already entitled to have a second child if both parents were already single children as the result of the one-child policy that was implemented in the late 1970s.

Further relaxation of the police could be introduced after 2020, the report said.

Chen Wei, a demographer at Beijing's Renmin University, told the Guardian said the policy was being relaxed because China's lingering low birth rate had meant a sharp drop in the labour force aged below 30, and an abnormally high ratio of newborn boys to girls.

The extent of the changes surprised some analysts.

"It shows the extent to which Xi is leading the agenda, it shows this generation of leaders is able to make decisions," said University of Chicago China expert Dali Yang. "This is someone who's much more decisive, who has the power, and who has been able to manoeuvre to make the decisions."

Demographers have argued that the population policy has created a looming ageing crisis for China by limiting the size of the young labour pool that must support the large baby boom generation as it retires.

"It's great, finally the Chinese government is officially acknowledging the demographic challenges it is facing," said Cai Yong, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

"Although this is, relatively speaking, a small step, I think it's a positive step in the right direction and hope that this will be a transition to a more relaxed policy and eventual return of reproductive freedom to the Chinese people," Cai said.

The Chinese government credits the one-child policy introduced in 1980 with preventing hundreds of millions of births and helping lift countless families out of poverty. But the strict limits have led to forced abortions and sterilisations by local officials, even though such measures are illegal. Couples who flout the rules face hefty fines, seizure of their property and loss of their jobs.

The update on birth limits was one sentence long, with details on implementation left to the country's family planning commission. It was unclear what might happen to children born in violation of rules, whose existence have been concealed and thus lack access to services.

Cai said some experts estimate that the policy change might result in one million to two million extra births in the first few years. But he said the figure might be significantly lower because of growing acceptance of small families. 

Other major reforms included abolishing the controversial tradition of sending petty criminal and government critics to labour camps for up to four years without trial - a punishment known as laojiao.