Human rights activists have voiced caution over China’s promises to loosen its one-child policy and shut down labour camps, fearing that abuses would still take place in different forms.
Days after a key meeting, the Communist leadership announced on Friday it would allow couples to have two children if one parent is an only child, widening the exemptions from a rule imposed in the late 1970s to control China’s population.
US Representative Chris Smith, who has campaigned for years against China’s one-child policy, said that authorities would still have the power to forbid births by mothers who have two children or are unwed.
“China is facing an implosion demographically and this is about as small of a step as they had to take,” said Smith, a Republican from New Jersey and staunch opponent of abortion.
“The coercive power of the state to dictate that you can have one, or maybe two, children remains unchanged. They need to end coercion and they need to end forced abortions,” Smith said.
China took the decision as its working-age population begins to shrink for the first time in decades and as it copes with a gender imbalance, which threatens instability as society faces the prospect of tens of millions of men incapable of finding opposite-sex partners.
Smith warned that “gullible Westerners” should not rush to praise China’s steps, saying that previous pledges such as a ban on sex-selective abortion have not been carried out.
The United States declined an official reaction to the promised reforms, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying only that US officials were “looking closely” at China’s announcements.
Chai Ling, a leader of the crushed Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989 who has since launched the group All Girls Allowed to campaign against the one-child policy, said that women in China were still forced to end pregnancies against their will.
“This is a small step forward, but far from what needs to happen, which is completely abolishing the one-child policy,” she said.
A 22,000-word document by China’s rulers also announced the abolition of the deeply unpopular “re-education through labour” system.
A United Nations report in 2009 estimated that China was holding some 190,000 people in such jails, where they can be sent without a court appearance.
Former inmates say that a main target has been the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, whose practitioners often face harsh physical and psychological pressure aimed at forcing them to renounce their beliefs.
The Falun Gong organisation said that China has been moving to shut down some labour camps but in some cases have simply moved practitioners to “drug rehabilitation centres” or other jails.
“What this all means, at least for Falun Gong, is that the attempt to abolish the labour camp system is not a reversal in any way of the policy to arbitrarily detain and abuse Falun Gong practitioners around China,” said Levi Browde, a spokesman for the New York-based Falun Dafa Information Center.
Corinna-Barbara Francis, an expert on the labour camps at Amnesty International, said that abolition would be “a big step in the right direction” but that authorities were looking for new ways to punish the same people.
“There is the very real risk that the Chinese authorities will abolish one system of arbitrary detention only to expand the use of others,” she said.