China has taken a significant step to loosen its controversial one-child policy, in a move that will allow millions more parents to have a second child. Announcing the first comprehensive set of reforms under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leadership said: "We will begin to allow couples to have two children if one of them is an only child." Spelling out a blueprint for the next five years, the document added: "We will gradually change and perfect our family planning policy and boost the population to grow steadily in the long term."
The decision emerged from the behind-closed-doors meeting of China's senior leaders last weekend, known as the Xi set a course for the next decade. Party leaders pledged again to close the country's labour camps, to improve the rights of farmers and to take 30 per cent of the profits of state-run companies and use the money for public spending. Experts welcomed the loosening of the one-child policy, but said China would have to take further steps rapidly in order to avert a demographic timebomb.
"This is only a small step forward," said Liang Zhongtang, a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and a member of the National Family Planning Commission. "The central government should not be tinkering around like this. They need to decide whether or not to stop the policy completely." China has claimed that the one child policy has enabled it to reduce its population by some 400 million - a calculation that most experts reject, pointing out that the birth rate has fallen in several other Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, to the same level as China's without any drastic state intervention. Currently the one-child policy applies to about a third of the population, with rural Chinese allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl.
Ethnic minorities are also exempt. But after three decades of birth restrictions, China has a dramatically ageing population. The one-child policy has also been heavily criticised for encouraging local governments to carry out forced abortions and sterilisations in order to remain within their birth quotas. Wang Feng, a fellow at the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing and an expert in demographics, estimated the change would allow roughly 10 million more couples to have a second child, of whom around half would do so over the coming years. He has previously predicted that all couples will shortly be allowed to have two children before the policy is lifted altogether.
"I do not think there will be a huge spike in the birth rate," added Prof Liang. "The number of women between 20 and 40 years old who can still give birth is in the tens of millions. And we are not sure how many of them are willing. Even if they are eligible, they have to choose to have another child." In cities, many Chinese couples now prefer to have a single child, concerned at the high cost of living. In a recent study in Jiangsu province, Gu Baochang, a demographer at Renmin university, found 70 per cent of rural families also favouring a single child.
"Finally we are allowed to have second child. But how to raise them? Can't even afford the kindergarten tuition! Let alone the school-selection fee for primary school, junior high and senior high!" noted one commenter on the Chinese internet. The reform document also promised that China would "perfect the judicial protection of human rights" and that "we will forbid confessions extracted through torture and abolish the labour camp system". In January, the head of China's police and judicial system promised that prisoners would no longer be sent to labour camps - which allow police to imprison people without charge. But it has proved tricky for Beijing to convince local governments to shut them. Some 190,000 Chinese were being held in 320 re-education centres in 2009, according to a UN Human Rights Council report - in addition to an estimated 1.6 million Chinese held in the formal prison system. Experts cautioned that the government has yet to explain what would replace the labour camps, with many human rights activists fearing that they would simply be given a new name. Last year, four major Chinese cities began trialling a pilot system, called "education and correction of violations".
Details of the pilots have not been released, but detainees are thought to receive more thorough investigations into their offences and to be sent to holding centres that are more humane. The Daily Telegraph 1.351bn The current population of China By numbers 9.5m Estimated extra births in first five years after the change 30m The number of bachelors in China 1.55 The fertility rate in China for the year 2011 2.0 The fertility rate needed to maintain a stable population 13.4 Percentage of the population currently aged over 60 34 Percentage of the population aged over 60 in 30 years 336m Estimated number of abortions since the one-child rule was adopted in 1970s.