CHINA has taken a significant step to loosen its controversial one-child policy, in a move that will allow millions more parents to have a second child.
Announcing the first comprehensive reforms under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leadership said: "We will begin to allow couples to have two children if one of them (the parents) is an only child."
Currently, in most cities, both parents must be an only child to be allowed a second birth.
Spelling out a blueprint for the next five years, the document added: "We will gradually change and perfect our family planning policy and boost the population to grow steadily in the long term."
The decision emerged from the behind-closed-doors meeting of China's senior leaders last weekend, as Mr Xi set a course for the next decade.
Party leaders pledged again to close the country's labour camps, to improve the rights of farmers and to take 30pc of the profits of state-run companies and use the money for public spending.
Experts welcomed the loosening of the one-child policy, but said China would have to take further steps rapidly in order to avert a demographic timebomb.
"This is only a small step forward," said Liang Zhongtang, a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and a member of the National Family Planning Commission.
China has claimed that the one-child policy has enabled it to reduce its population by some 400 million – a calculation that most experts reject, pointing out that the birth rate has fallen in other Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, to the same level as China's without drastic state intervention.
Currently the one-child policy applies to about a third of the population, with rural Chinese allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl. Ethnic minorities are also exempt.
In cities, many Chinese couples now prefer to have a single child, concerned at the high cost of living. Gu Baochang, a demographer at Renmin university, found 70pc of rural families also favouring a single child.
"Finally we are allowed to have second child. But how to raise them? Can't even afford the kindergarten tuition! Let alone the school-selection fee for primary school, junior high and senior high!" noted one commenter on the Chinese internet.
The reform document also promised that China would "perfect the judicial protection of human rights" and that "we will forbid confessions extracted through torture and abolish the labour camp system".
Last year, four major Chinese cities began trialling a pilot system, called "education and correction of violations".
Details of the pilots have not been released, but detainees are thought to receive more thorough investigations into their offences and to be sent to holding centres that are more humane. (© Daily Telegraph, London)