More Changes For China After Leadership Conference

China's leadership said Friday that it will close forced labor camps and relax its one-child policy. The announcement followed a special four-day meeting of leaders, which resulted in a number of economic and social reforms. Both the "re-education through labor" camps and the population control measures are widely unpopular with the Chinese public; the leadership also announced changes intended to encourage greater urbanization in China, as the country tries to build a consumer-led economy.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Two big announcements today from China. Its government said that it will further loosen the country's one-child policy, and abolish its infamous re-education through labor camps. The news follows a special, four-day meeting of the country's leaders.

And to hear more about why China is doing this, and what it might mean, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. Frank, welcome to the program. And first, the one-child policy, what do Chinese leaders mean when they say they'll loosen the rules?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, you know, they've been loosening it over the years, and they're talking about further loosening it. Under the current system, you know, if both parents are only children, they can have a second child. And under this new policy that they just announced today, if just one parent is an only child, they can have two.

One estimate is this could affect maybe 10 million couples, but it's not entirely clear how many people would take them up on this, Robert, because you know, raising children now in China is very expensive. Many couples say they only want one. I was out in a neighboring province, I think it was last year, and just talking to a lot of people. And I had a hard time finding anybody who said they would have a second child if the policy changed. And demographic surveys by social scientists have found similar results.

SIEGEL: But the policy has been around for decades. What drove the change today?

LANGFITT: Well, I think, you know, for one thing, people here really despise the policy. But more importantly it's demographics. You know, the population here is aging rapidly. Labor is peaking. And demographers have been telling the government publicly now for a number of years that they need to change the policy.

The country is facing major labor shortages, and what they say is that it's going to damage economic growth and in the future. Of course this is a really crowded country, so I think some older officials just wouldn't listen. But now it looks like people are beginning to listen to the critics.

SIEGEL: Let's move on to the other announcement today, the end of re-education through labor camps. Frank, remind us how the camps work and why the government would abolish them now.

LANGFITT: Well, you know, they go back to the 1950s, and in recent years, the way it's kind of worked is people could put critics, drug addicts, prostitutes away for 18 months without trial. And what these were used for in a number of cases was just to warehouse critics of the government.

What's happened in the last year or two, the public has just really turned against this system. There was a recent case that we covered in which a woman had been criticizing local police for protecting people who trafficked her daughter into prostitution, and the cops ended up putting the mother in a re-education through labor camp to punish her. And the story blew up on the Internet.

Millions of people were really, really furious here, and what's been happening actually this year is many of the camps have been releasing prisoners at the end of their sentences and not taking in new ones. So camps are actually, many of them, I think, are de facto beginning to close down.

SIEGEL: Well, but if the Chinese shut down all the camps, would that lift the threat of arbitrary detention in China?

LANGFITT: Nobody seems to think that, and certainly human rights activists are very, very skeptical. Amnesty International put out an announcement today after this came out of Beijing, and they called abolishing re-education through labor camps a big step. But researchers point out that the government still has lots of other ways to detain people.

They sometimes use brainwashing centers, the way the human rights activists describe them, to incarcerate a spiritual group like Falungong. There's also continued use of black jails. These are often motels in cities where people who criticize the local government and go to Beijing to complain, they're often abducted and put in these motels for maybe seven, 10 days and are held by thugs.

So the concern from human rights activists is you get rid of re-education through labor, but you just expand these other systems. There have been baits and switches like this before, so I think particularly on re-education through labor people are going to be watching very closely to see how it really works.

SIEGEL: OK, again the news, the Chinese announcing abolition of the re-education through labor camps and a further loosening of the one-child policy. Frank, thanks.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai.

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