BEIJING — China announced Friday that it would relax – but not abolish – its decades-old “one-child” policy and scrap its much-criticized system of labor camps.

The changes relaxed some harsh measures that dated back to the time of Communist China’s founding father, Mao Zedong. Human rights groups said the changes to the one-child policy were disappointingly limited. But they praised the decision to get rid of labor camps as a step in the right direction for the 8-month-old government of President Xi Jinping.

The policy changes were announced after a meeting of top Communist Party officials, who also grappled with reforms designed to revitalize the country’s slowing economy and gave Xi considerable new powers over national security and economic decisions.

The new family-planning policy says that if either member of a couple is an only child, the couple may have two children. The change means that most young Chinese couples can now have two children, if they wish.

Couples where both partners are only children – common in Chinese cities – have long been allowed to have a second child, however, and rural families are also allowed to do so if their first child is a girl. Many urban couples prefer to have only one child because the rising cost of housing and education make having multiple children so difficult.

For all these reasons, demographers say, the relaxing of the policy is unlikely to cause a significant rise in the country’s 1.3 billion population. “There could be a slight rise, but this policy will not cause a dramatic growth in the birth rate,” said Li Jianmin, a population professor at Nankai University.

China enacted the controversial one-child policy in 1980, in an effort to rein in runaway population growth. Internal debate about relaxing the policy has intensified in the face of an aging population and looming shortage of labor.

Human rights groups, who have consistently exposed forced abortions, infanticide and involuntary sterilizations being propagated under the policy, had wanted the policy abolished altogether.

“One-child policy reform really falls short,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “The whole system needs to be dismantled. What they’re doing is just tinkering with it, allowing one specific category of people to have two children. And it’s being done mostly for demographic reasons . . . and not because the system is abusive and generates so much pain for so many.”

The one-child policy reshaped Chinese society – with birthrates plunging from 4.77 children per woman in the early 1970s to 1.64 in 2011, according to estimates by the United Nations – and contributed to the world’s most unbalanced sex ratio at birth, with baby boys far outnumbering girls.

“(We must) insist on the basic state policy of family planning,” said the detailed policy document released by state media. “(We should) launch a policy that couples can have two children if one of them is an only child, so as to gradually adjust and perfect the childbearing policy and to promote a balanced development of population in a long term.”

Bequelin hailed the decision to scrap Chinese labor camps as “definitely a positive step.”

The “re-education through labor” system was introduced under Mao in the 1950s as a way to deal with political enemies. Statistics are hard to come by, but according to the government, 160,000 people were held in 350 such facilities throughout China in 2008.

Stories abound of the harsh conditions at the camps: sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures, regular beatings, barely edible food and little respite from the relentless pace of factory work.

“Labor camps were a tool of the police, used against religious groups, political dissidents, anyone they wanted and in terms of rule of law, it was incredibly damaging to the integrity of the criminal law system,” Bequelin said.

The key question, he said, is whether China plans to replace its labor camps with another system that would still allow police to imprison suspects without a trial. “So far there is every indication they are going to do this, under something new called ‘correctional behavior law for minor offenders,’” Bequelin said.

Xi’s own father was sacked as vice premier during China’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and imprisoned for seven years. The abolition of the labor camps is believed to be something for which he personally advocated, over significant internal opposition from within the Communist Party.

Experts said the decision also appeared to be in line with Xi’s attempts to cut down the powers of the state security apparatus, for whom the labor camp system had been a powerful tool.

Friday’s policy document, released three days after the conclusion of the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party, was drafted under the direct supervision of Xi and appeared to further consolidate his powers.

A new State Security Committee is to be established, with control over both domestic security and foreign policy, and is likely to report directly to the president.

Analysts say the new committee could bear some similarities to the U.S. National Security Council.

It is partly an attempt to bring greater coordination and clarity to China’s sometimes disjointed foreign policy, and also to strengthen Xi’s control over internal security, they say. A newly created team to hasten economic reforms also gives Xi more power to push through measures that may face internal opposition from powerful vested interests.

“Comprehensively deepening reform is a complicated systematic project,” Xi said. “It is impossible to realize it if we only rely on one or a few departments, so a higher-level leading department needed to be set up.”

The new team, he said, would “plan as whole, coordinate, push forward, supervise and urge” reforms at all levels.

Xi, in a written statement that was read on China Central Television, said Internet and information security was a new challenge for national security, and the management of it needed to be better coordinated and strengthened.

Since taking over as president in March, Xi has come under fire from human rights groups for intensifying China’s harsh controls over freedom of speech and the Internet, and for arresting dozens of dissidents.

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