The National People's Congress, China's top legislature, approved resolutions Saturday to abolish controversial re-education labor camps and ease its equally criticized one-child policy.

The standing committee of the NPC passed the resolutions after a week of deliberation and a month and a half after China's Communist Party pledged to carry out these and other social and economic reforms.

The "re-education-through-labor" system, instituted in the late 1950s by then-Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, will be brought to an end now that its "historical mission" has been completed, official news agency Xinhua said Saturday.

All those serving sentences at the camps will be immediately freed, according to the NPC, although the penalties imposed before the system was abolished will remain "valid."

Under the re-education labor system established in 1957 to allow rapid punishment for petty criminals, individuals were deprived of their freedom for up to four years without a conviction (a political decision sufficed).

The camps became a political tool used to punish intellectuals and many of the students who took part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Rights groups estimate that up to 300,000 people a year were confined in those centers.

London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International, however, has warned that the camps could continue under a different guise to punish dissidents and social activists.

Separately, the NPC voted to alter China's one-child policy to allow couples to have two children if either parent is an only child; previously, a couple could only have two children if both parents were only children.

The resolution states that it is now in the hands of "provincial congresses and their standing committees to make the call about implementing the new policy," Xinhua reported.

The Beijing legislature, for example, has already begun to debate the changes and the new policy is expected to enter into force in the capital by around March 2014.

Chinese health and family-planning authorities estimate the reform will lead to 2 million additional births per year, raising the total number of annual births from 7 million to 9 million.

The one-child policy was adopted in the late 1970s and early 1980s to resolve the country's severe demographic challenges, but in recent years Chinese experts and legislators have called for it to be relaxed to combat the country's rapidly aging population and growing labor shortages. EFE