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China eases one-child policy, abolishes labour camps
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Dec 28, 2013


Chinese president queues for pork buns at Beijing eatery
Beijing (AFP) Dec 29, 2013 - Chinese President Xi Jinping caused a stir with a weekend visit to a local Beijing restaurant, where he queued and bought his own steamed buns.

In a move apparently aimed at burnishing his everyman credentials, Xi dropped by the popular Qingfeng steamed bun shop on Saturday and paid out of his own pocket for a traditional meal of pork-and-onion buns, green vegetables and fried liver, state media reported.

The total tab for the meal was 21 yuan ($3.50), according to the Beijing News.

Photos and videos of Xi's visit swiftly made the rounds on the Chinese Internet, with some users greeting the news with surprise and approval in a country where the leaders are rarely seen in public.

"Xi is a pragmatist who is in touch with the people," one user wrote. "Chinese people should support this."

Others responded with scepticism, musing that the staff and other diners in the restaurant during Xi's visit were likely actors or bodyguards and that it was little more than a photo opportunity that said little about whether China's leaders were in touch with ordinary citizens.

"Ask him how much it costs for a pound of steamed buns. Do you think he knows?" wrote one unimpressed user.

"Not to mention the president, but have you ever seen a county official buy their own buns?" wrote another.

Chinese presidents and other top leaders rarely venture beyond Zhongnanhai, the heavily-protected compound which houses the central government headquarters, to mix with ordinary residents of Beijing.

Some likened the move to "impromptu" restaurant visits by US leaders: Vice President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew made headlines during official visits to China in recent years by ordering cheap meals at local Beijing eateries.

500 local Chinese lawmakers resign in fraud scandal
Hong Kong Dec 28, 2013 - More than 500 municipal lawmakers in one Chinese province have stood down following an electoral fraud scandal, as Beijing ramps up its sweeping anti-corruption crackdown, state media reported Saturday. The 512 municipal officials in China's central Hunan province resigned, were disqualified or dismissed after being caught taking bribes from 56 representatives of the provincial People's Congress to elect them to their posts, Xinhua news agency said. Municipal officials have the power to appoint representatives of their provincial assembly, the local rubber-stamp parliament, although the process does not constitute a fully free or open election. Local authorities dismissed 56 representatives of the 763-strong Hunan People's Congress for being "elected by bribery", state television channel CCTV said on its Twitter account. An initial investigation revealed that 110 million yuan ($18 million) was offered in bribes to lawmakers and staff in the province's second city of Hengyang, state media reported, citing a Hunan government statement. "The fraud, involving such a huge number of lawmakers and a large amount of money, is serious in nature and has a vile impact," Xinhua quoted the statement as saying. "This is a challenge to China's system of people's congresses, socialist democracy, law and Party discipline," it said. It named Tong Mingqian, the former Party chief of Hengyang, as being "directly responsible" for the election scandal. On Friday a court sentenced four government workers in Hunan to between three and a half and 11 years' jail over the death of 56-year-old watermelon seller Deng Zhengjia in July. Domestic media blamed Deng's death on the local enforcement officers, or "chengguan", in a case that triggered fury among the public over perceived abuse of power.

China's top legislative committee formally approved a loosening of the country's hugely controversial one-child policy on Saturday and abolished "re-education through labour" camps, state media reported.

The decisions were taken by the standing committee of the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament, at the conclusion of a six-day meeting, according to Xinhua news agency.

The widening of existing exceptions to the one-child policy will allow couples where either parent has no siblings to have two children, reforming the strict family planning policy imposed more than three decades ago to prevent overpopulation in the world's most populous nation.

The abolition of re-education through labour, known as "laojiao", will see existing inmates freed, Xinhua said.

"Their remaining terms will not be enforced any more," it quoted the NPC resolution as saying.

China argues its one-child limit kept population growth in check and supported the country's rapid development that has seen it soar from mass poverty to become the world's second-largest economy.

But enforcement of the policy has at times been excessive. The public was outraged last year when photos circulated online of a woman forced to abort her baby seven months into her pregnancy.

Now China faces looming demographic challenges, including a rapidly increasing elderly population, a shrinking labour force and male-female imbalances.

China's sex ratio has risen to 115 boys for every 100 girls, while the working population began to drop last year, Xinhua said earlier.

The birth rate has fallen to about 1.5 since the 1990s, well below the replacement rate, it added.

While the easing of the one-child policy -- estimated to apply to around 10 million couples -- has been welcomed, critics say that the state has retained the principle of deciding itself how many children people should have.

Provincial congresses and their standing committees will decide on implementing the new policy "based on evaluation of local demographic situation and in line with the law on population and family planning as well as this resolution," Xinhua said, citing the resolution document.

The one-child policy reforms are expected to come into force in the first quarter of 2014, according to a senior official from the National Health and Family Planning Commission, Xinhua reported last week.

A dark chapter in China's recent past

The approval to end the labour camps, introduced more than half a century ago, closes the curtain on a dark aspect of the country's modern history long criticised by human rights groups and which Chinese authorities admit is no longer viable.

China began re-education through labour in 1957 as a speedy way to handle petty offenders. But the system -- which allows a police panel to issue sentences of up to four years without trial -- soon became rife with abuse.

State media have cited the development of China's legal system as making the camps "superfluous", with their "historical mission" having come to an end.

A UN report published in 2009 estimated that 190,000 people were held in the camps.

But activists played down the significance of the labour camp system's abolition, pointing out that under Chinese law the authorities can still detain suspects for lengthy periods without a trial.

"Almost all the people I know who were staying at the camps have been released, starting from early this year," Zhao Guangjun, a former laojiao inmate and political activist based in Liaoning province, told AFP.

"Even if the labour camp system has been abolished, the government could still punish people by making them to stay longer in detention centres," added Zhao, who took part anti-laojiao protests in Beijing in March.

Earlier this month Amnesty International also warned that the closure of the labour camps amounted to little more than cosmetic change given that arbitrary detention will persist in unofficial "black jails", drug rehabilitation centres and other facilities.

The decisions came just days after the standing committee had expressed support for them and following promises by the ruling Communist Party at its Third Plenum meeting last month. Legislative approval was formally required to put them into effect.

The Third Plenum meeting has historically been an occasion for the ruling party to expand reforms, and was the first such gathering since Xi Jinping took over as head of the party in November last year as part of a once-a-decade power handover.

The party also pledged at the meeting to reduce the scope of the death penalty "step by step" -- China is the world's biggest judicial executioner -- accelerate reforms to the household registration system and loosen controls on the economy by giving markets a "decisive" role in the allocation of resources.

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