China's Bosses Loosen Stranglehold on Personal Rights

Along with reforms aimed at easing the government’s tight grip over the economy, the leaders of the ruling Communist Party also unveiled proposals to loosen the one-child policy and do away with the power to order people to labor camps without trial.

The latter change is seen as a big step toward greater respect for the fundamental freedoms of procreation, speech and association. The proposal to let most couples have two children is forced by the specter of an shrinking working work force unable to support and care for its ballooning population of elders. Another socially significant proposal aims gradually to reduce the number of crimes punishable by death.

The envisioned changes are contained in 60 proposals for economic and social reform endorsed by President Xi Jinping and other senior party leaders at closed sessions of the weeklong conference of the Central Committee which had ended Tuesday.

“We must certainly have the courage and conviction to renew ourselves,” said Xi in a statement unveiling the proposals on Friday.

“Overcome all the cross-cutting restrictions, surmount the constraints of sectional interests, and have an active, engaged spirit in studying and putting forward reform proposals,” Xi added.

The primary focus of Xi’s reform efforts have been the restructuring of China’s economy toward one driven more by consumer demand and small entrepreneurs and less by state-owned enterprises and government infrastructure projects.

The decision to abolish the system of labor camps is the biggest step toward recognition of basic rights. Since the 1950s the Communist Party had given security apparatus the power to imprison for months or even years disfavored individuals — mostly political dissidents and villagers disgruntled by unfair treatment by corrupt officials — without any form of due process.

That practice has been cited by human rights activists as the worst of the abuses sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party. As long as labor camps exist China’s constitutional guarantees of individual rights are meaningless since all legal safeguards can be circumvented by the police power of extra-judicial detention. Abolishing that excessive state power lays a foundation for the guarantees of individual rights and gives substance to Xi’s earlier pledge to “put power in a cage”.

The proposal would lead to the freeing of over 100,000 people currently undergoing forced labor in factories and farms.

China’s one-child policy too has drawn widespread criticism from abroad and among its citizens as gross government infringement on personal rights. For the past quarter century urban couples had been limited to one child. In recent years some regions had introduced exceptions letting couples who are both only children to have two children.

The proposed change would allow urban couples to have two children if at least one is an only child. This would essentially do away with the one-child limit since the vast majority of urbanites of child-bearing age are only children. Contrary to popular perception, since 1978 when the one-child limit began to be strictly enforced it applied to less than a third of China’s population since rural and ethnic couples were exempted. Until recently the vast majority of China’s population was rural.