China has announced a series of wide-ranging reforms, including relaxing its decades-old one-child policy and abolishing its re-education through labor camps.
The moves, announced Friday by the official Xinhua news agency, are an expanded summary of decisions from a key Communist Party meeting that ended earlier this week.
Under the new rules, Chinese couples will now be able to have two children if one of the parents is an only child. Currently, only very few couples are able to have more than one child. Rights groups have long criticized the one-child policy, which has been in some cases carried out with forced abortions and sterilization campaigns.
A growing number of scholars had long urged the government to reform the policy, introduced in the late 1970s to prevent population growth spiraling out of control, but now regarded by many experts as outdated and harmful to the economy.
While the easing of the controls will not have a substantial demographic impact in the world's most populous nation, it could pave the way for the abolition of the policy.
"The demographic significance is minimal but the political significance is substantial,'' said Wang Feng, a sociology professor at Fudan University specializing in China's demographics, before the announcement.
"This is one of the most urgent policy changes that we've been awaiting for years. What this will mean is a very speedy abolishment of the one-child policy.''
Wang Guangzhou, a demographer from top government think-tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, estimated the new policy would affect 30 million women of child-bearing age in a country which has nearly 1.4 billion people.
Many analysts say the one-child policy has shrunk China's labor pool, hurting economic growth. For the first time in decades the working age population fell in 2012, and China could be the first country in the world to get old before it gets rich.
"It's not a huge reform, there have been small adjustments all along,'' said Liang Zhongtang, a demographer from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "I am just worried that they will make no further adjustments for a very long time after they've made this one.''
Another area of criticism has been China's notorious re-education through labor system, which Xinhua says will now end. Under the system, police can sentence alleged offenders to years in camps without a trial. It is unclear what will replace the labor camps, which are estimated to hold as many as 190,000 people.
The report added that Beijing will also reduce "step by step" the number of crimes subject to the death penalty. China does not release its capital punishment figures, but rights groups such as Amnesty International believe China in recent years has executed more people than the rest of the world combined.
Xinhua said the reforms were part of efforts to improve human rights and judicial practices.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters