The revision does not go nearly far enough, said longtime critics of what is known as China's one-child policy. Only a small percent of couples will benefit from the first change in decades to the policy, which still leaves intact a coercive system of forced sterilization and abortion.
The changes were part of a key policy document following a four-day meeting of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders. Families in which at least one parent is an only child will be allowed to have a second child. Previously, both parents had to be only children. Rural couples have been allowed two children if their first-born child was a girl.
Introduced in 1980, the CCP claims the policy prevented 400 million births and helped lift countless families out of poverty. But the strict limits have led to widespread forced abortions and sterilizations by local officials, even though Beijing officially claims such measures are illegal. Couples who flout the rules face hefty fines, seizure of their property and loss of their jobs.
In recent years -- even in China -- sociologists have argued the policy is creating an aging crisis by limiting the size of the young labor pool that must support the large baby boom generation as it retires. China is known for sex-selective abortion and male birth rates nearly twice that of girls in some areas.
Media outlets such as USA Today called China's Nov. 15 announcement a "major change." But while it's a major development -- the rural family exemption came in 1984 -- only about 10 million couples in the country of 1.35 billion will now have a choice for a second child, Wang Feng, a demographer at the University of California-Irvine, told The Economist.
Human rights advocates have been hesitant to declare a major victory. Bob Fu, founder and president of ChinaAid, called the change a "positive baby step," reflecting the CCP's recognition of looming economic and social disaster. The change does little for human rights, though, he said. "The whole coercive system is still unchanged. Unless the whole family planning system is abolished, Chinese women and men will continue to suffer the cruelty of the forced abortion and forced sterilization," Fu said.
A senior Chinese family planning officer also indicated that the policy change would not make much difference. Wang Pei'an, deputy director of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, told the government-controlled Xinhua News Agency that the number of couples covered by the change would not be large. He also said there was no standard timetable for implementing the revision, meaning each region would decide when to enforce it. In addition, Pei'an said regions should promote intervals between births.
"China's population will not grow substantially in the short term," he said.
Reggie Littlejohn, a leading opponent of China's population control program, said in a written statement that headlines reporting China has "eased" its policy "are detrimental to sincere efforts to stop forced abortion in China, because they imply that the One Child Policy is no longer a problem. In a world laden with compassion fatigue, people are relieved to cross China's One Child Policy off of their list of things to worry about. But we cannot do that. Let us not abandon the women of China, who continue to face forced abortion, up to the ninth month of pregnancy."
In what is perhaps a more significant human rights development, CCP officials also plan to abolish China's labor camp system. Also known as "re-education through labor," the system of 50-plus years may hold critics of the Communist Party captive for up to four years without trial. Today, it is still used to bypass the justice system and has been a tool for persecuting Christian house church leaders. Fu called the announcement "a very positive step," though "we have to wait and see if there is another similar substitute system to play the same role."
Compiled from reports by WORLD News Service and Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode.
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