02:07 - Source: CNN
China's one child policy changes

Story highlights

China's top legislature approves changes to one-child policy

Couples will be allowed to have two children if one of the parents was an only child

The National People's Congress also abolishes re-education through labor camps

(CNN) —  

China’s plan to relax its controversial decades-long, one-child policy has taken a significant step forward, with the country’s top legislative body poised to approve its implementation early next year.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the resolutions Saturday, according to the Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency. The resolution is equal to a legal document in China.

The changes to the rules, first announced last month, will mean couples will be allowed to have two children if one of the parents was an only child, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. Currently, both parents must be sole children to be eligible for a second child.

The one-child policy, which started in the 1970s, is believed to have prevented some 400 million births, according to Xinhua.

Although the policy has been applauded by many for slowing down China’s rapid population growth, it has also been widely criticized for resulting in forced abortions and hefty fines for families.

Some critics say the law hurts China’s elderly, who typically rely on their children for support in old age, and even constrains economic growth as the working-age population begins to decline.

Since the 1990s, the birth rate has declined, with Chinese women giving birth to an average of 1.4 to 1.6 children.

Officials say the easing of the one-child policy does not mean China is ending its family planning.

“China still has a large population. This has not changed. Many of our economic and social problems are rooted in this reality,” said Jiang Fan, an National People’s Congress deputy and member of the NPC Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, in Chinese media. “We cannot risk the population growing out of control.”

The easing of the one-child policy is expected to go into effect in some regions in the first quarter of 2014, according to Xinhua.

Re-education camps abolished

China had hinted as early as January that it would terminate the controversial re-education through labor camps.

The notorious camps date back to the 1950s when the new Communist regime sought to silence its enemies to consolidate its power.

Critics say the camps, which fall outside of the formal prison system, are often misused to persecute government dissidents, including intellectuals, human rights activists and followers of banned spiritual groups like the Falun Gong.

China’s forced labor camps: One woman’s fight for justice

The abolition of labor camps called “laojiao” goes into effect Saturday. Xinhua reported that the people still serving in re-education through labor camps will be set free.

Human rights organizations say the changes to the labor camps may just be cosmetic. Amnesty International told CNN earlier this month that the labor camps are being replaced by other types of facilities such as “legal education camps” or renamed as drug rehabilitation camps.

Amnesty: Rights abuses continue despite camp closures

CNN’s Paul Armstrong contributed to this report.