Last updated: November 15, 2013 4:10 pm

China to ease ‘one-child’ policy as part of sweeping reforms

Tourists visit the Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People where the Communist Party's 205-member Central Committee gathered for its third annual plenum on November 12 2013 in Beijing, China©Getty

China’s Communist Party has promised to loosen social controls including the decades-old “one-child” policy and phase out state-controlled prices in a broad range of industries as part of an aggressive push to shore up support for continued authoritarian rule.

In a sweeping blueprint for reform published on Friday night in Beijing, the party said it would allow competitive market-based pricing in sectors including water, energy, transport and telecommunications.

It also said the government would explore a system that guaranteed equal treatment of foreign investors in the world’s second-largest economy, as long as they did not invest in industries such as defence and other strategically important sectors.

The document, entitled “a decision on major issues concerning comprehensive and far-reaching reforms”, also committed China to loosening its decades-old one-child policy and abolishing its notorious “reform through labour” gulag system.

The number of couples allowed to have two children under the law will be expanded to include families where only one parent is an only child. Previously the law only granted this concession to couples where both parents were only children.

In a move that will cheer foreign investors frustrated by China’s rampant industrial piracy, Beijing will also consider establishing a special court to deal exclusively with complaints over intellectual property violations.

The reforms in Friday’s document were approved at China’s third plenum, a closed-door Party conclave that ended on Tuesday. They have been billed as a road map for the administration of President Xi Jinping, who is expected to rule over the world’s most populous nation for the next decade.

Mr Xi is known for his plain-spoken style, and in his speech to the plenum he spoke directly to the concerns of many Chinese: housing, education, food safety and corruption. “To solve all these problems, the key issue is reform,” he said.

Many of the detailed reforms will make it easier for Chinese to gain access to public services. More private hospitals will be allowed – a reform dear to the heart of Premier Li Keqiang – and college admission will be based on grades in addition to the dreaded college test.

It will become easier for migrants to settle in smaller cities, and farmers will be granted far greater property rights than they are currently. But the party vowed to keep controls on the population of the largest, most desirable cities.

While the Party has pledged to make significant changes to the way it governs China, including removing numerous government approvals and licenses, the communiqué issued Friday makes clear that Mr Xi is not contemplating major political reforms to the one-party system.

The party “must consolidate Marxism’s leading position in the ideological sphere,” and “strengthen public opinion guidance”, it said.

The document also suggested that the state’s hold over the commanding heights of the Chinese economy will not be changed any time soon.

State enterprises will eventually be made to pay larger dividends to the state and a portion of their equity will be transferred to state pension funds and private investors, but their dominance in key sectors will be protected and there appears to be no plan for large-scale privatisation.

Despite rampant corruption, inefficiency and poor service in the state-owned sector, officials are worried about the experience of countries like Russia, where rapid privatisation led to a concentration of wealth in the hands of a politically-connected few.

“If we were to sell the state enterprises, who do you think would buy them? Of course it would be the children of powerful officials and then we would have the problem of oligarchs,” said one senior official before the close of this week’s conclave.

Additional reporting by Simon Rabinovitch in Shanghai and Tom Mitchell in Beijing

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