China announced Friday it will loosen family planning rules that limit most couples to a single child. 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 through Tuesday. 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 Friday’s revelation a “major change.” But while it’s a major development—the rural family exemption came in 1984—few actually benefit. 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,” showing 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.
China has a history of making small changes to the one-child policy for the sake of public relations.
“The Chinese Communist Party periodically modifies the one-child policy, but the coercion at its core remains,” Reggie Littlejohn of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers told LifeNews in March. “Reports of these tweaks—especially when amplified by Western media—throw the human rights world into confusion and blunt genuine efforts to end forced abortion in China.”
Wang Xia, chairman of China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, declared firm support for the policy at a January conference: “We must unwaveringly adhere to the one-child policy as a national policy to stabilize the low birth rate as the primary task. … We need to keep the one-child policy and keep the national birth rate low. … It’s our priority.”
In what is perhaps a more significant human rights development, the world learned Friday that CCP officials also plan to abolish China’s labor camp system. Also known as “re-education through labor,” the more than 50-year-old system may hold captive critics of the Communist Party for up to four years without trial. Today, it’s 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.”