HONG KONG -- The Chinese government will ease its one-child family restrictions and abolish "re-education through labor" camps, significantly curtailing two policies that for decades have defined the state's power to control citizens' lives, the Communist Party said Friday.
The changes were announced in a party decision that also laid out broad and potentially far-reaching proposals to restructure the economy by encouraging greater private participation in finance, vowing market competition in several important parts of the economy and promising farmers better property protection and compensation for confiscated land.
Senior party officials, led by President Xi Jinping, endorsed the 60 reform initiatives at a four-day Central Committee conference that ended Tuesday, but the decision was released Friday. Mr. Xi, who was appointed party leader a year ago and made state president last March, described the document as a bold call for economic renewal, social improvement and patriotic nation-building -- all under the firm control of one-party rule. "We must certainly have the courage and conviction to renew ourselves," he said in a statement accompanying the decision. Both were issued by the official news agency, Xinhua.
Mr. Xi has tried to project an image as a leader who can pursue a potentially conflicting agenda: bringing about broad economic and social shifts while also fortifying one-party rule. For months, analysts have speculated about the new economic policies that could be introduced at the meeting. But the planned changes to population policy and punishment, two areas where reforms have been debated -- and delayed -- for years, gave the decision significance beyond the economy and could stir public expectations of even bolder changes under Mr. Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang in the decade they are likely to spend in office.
"Xi Jinping may have the most concentrated power of any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping," said Shanghai history professor Xiao Gongqin, who closely follows Chinese politics and advocates "neo-authoritarian" rule to protect the march of market reforms. "Politically, he has pursued an ideological tightening, because he wants to prevent the kind of explosion in political demands that could come in a relaxed environment. That's the biggest danger for any government entering a period of reform."
For decades, most urban couples have been restricted to having one child. That has been changing fitfully, with rules on the books that couples can have two children if both parents are single children. But that policy will be now be further relaxed nationwide. Many rural couples already have two, or sometimes more, children.
"This is the first time that a central document has clearly proposed allowing two children when a husband or wife is an only child," said demographer Wang Guangzhou at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "Now, it's just talking about launching this, but the specific policies have to be developed at the operational level."
If carried through, the relaxation would mark the first significant nationwide easing of family-size restrictions that have been in place since the 1970s, said demographer Wang Feng, who teaches at both the University of California, Irvine, and Shanghai's Fudan University. He estimated that the policy could lead to 1 to 2 million more births in China every year, on top of about 15 million births a year now.
"This step is really, I think, the middle step toward allowing all couples to have two children, and eventually taking away the state's hand," Mr. Wang said. "But this shift is historical, it's fundamental."
The one-child restrictions were introduced to deal with official fears that China's population would devour too many resources and suffocate growth. But they have created public ire and international criticism over forced abortions, and have created a population of 1.34 billion, according to a 2010 census, that is aging relatively rapidly, even before China establishes a firm foothold in prosperity.
The party leaders also confirmed an announcement made earlier this year, and then abruptly retracted, that they intend to abolish re-education through labor, which since the 1950s has empowered police authorities to imprison people without any real judicial review. Experts and officials have debated whether to adjust or abolish the system of camps since the 1980s. Now, abolition is closer. "Abolish the system of re-education through labor," said the decision, which proposed expanding community correction to partly replace the system.
"This is a significant step forward," said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher who specializes on China with Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy organization. "It doesn't mean that China is going to be kinder to dissent and to its critics," he said. Re-education through labor was introduced under Mao Zedong to lock away alleged political opponents, and it expanded into a system of incarceration holding more than 100,000 people, many of them working in prison factories and on farms. Sentences are determined by police, and defendants have scant chance to appeal imprisonment that can last as long as four years.
The document gives no date for bringing labor re-education to an end, or for introducing the changes to family planning policy. The decision also leaves in place labor camps that are part of the general penal system for those convicted in court.
In a country that carries out more executions than the rest of the world combined, the document pledged to gradually reduce the number of crimes that can result in the death penalty.