Monday, April 13, 2009

China's Human Rights Plan Met With Mixed Reactions

On Monday, China unveiled with great fanfare its National Human Rights Action Plan for 2009–2010 (full text available in English | Chinese). This plan, the first of its kind for China, is intended to set goals and measures for all of China's government to follow in the next two years in its efforts to better protect and respect human rights.

The plan, which was greeted with great enthusiasm by the China's domestic media, received a more lukewarm reception outside the country. Although the plan contained several important expressions of support for the protection of human rights and some specific proposals, skeptics question whether the plan contained enough concrete benchmarks against which to measure achievements, particularly in the area of civil and political rights, and whether China's system was transparent enough to allow for independent verification of progress.

The following essay, published on the website of the Changjiang Daily in Wuhan (and reprinted by several major Chinese-language news portals), argues strongly that China's ambitious plans need to be accompanied by sufficient action, else its goals will be in danger of not being realized. The author also reminds us that human rights are "naturally inherent" and "sacred" and not to be doled out by the state as it sees fit "according to national circumstances." Progress in the protection of human rights should move forward in all areas simultaneously: economic, social, cultural, civil, and political.

Safeguard Human Rights with Sufficient Action
Li Qiong
April 14, 2009

Yesterday, the State Council authorized the State Council Information Office to issue the "National Human Rights Action Plan (2009–2010)" (NHRAP). This is the first time China has established a national program focused on human rights, and its action plan clearly sets out the Chinese government's goals and concrete measures for the promotion and protection of human rights during the coming two years.

From 1991, when the Chinese government published the "Chinese Human Rights Situation" white paper, the first government document to positively affirm the status of the concept of human rights in China's political development, to 2004, when the phrase "the state protects and respects human rights" became part of the constitution, there has been increasingly clear and resolute identification of human rights as a common achievement of human civilization and a mainstream value of international society.

On the level of theory and perception, the concept of human rights has already cast off the cloak of ideological struggle, and in speech it is no longer a sensitive or taboo subject. A whole series of legal provisions have reflected elements of the protection of human rights. The positive significance of the NHRAP lies in its clarification of the basic elements of the protection of human rights in China and turning these national values and strategic goals into a roadmap for the near term.

In addition to progress on the level of ideas and perception, we cannot deny the accomplishments China has made in the area of action on human rights protection. But compared to the human rights content found in the NHRAP and in our various laws, we remain deeply concerned about the protection of human rights in practice.

Looking at the reality of present-day Chinese society, many aspects of respecting and protecting human rights have yet to reach the ground, and there is much that remains unfinished with regard to upholding and protecting people's rights. In some areas, whenever there is an accident involving major loss of life, the first thing that local government and enterprises think to do is conceal and cover up. In some management of society at the grassroots level, the difficulties people face in expressing and upholding their rights end up turning into intense popular confrontations or conflicts with officials or the police. In all areas of law enforcement and the administration of justice, there often appear flashes of the dark shadows of torture, prison bullies, and miscarriages of justice. In the hospitals of every major city, many parents of children with leukemia fiercely hope for a chance meeting with the Premier. The lack of basic cultural facilities in rural areas, the detention and even incarceration in psychiatric hospitals of those who make complaints and petitions—these facts make it clear that there remains a long way to go before realizing civil, cultural, and political rights.

These hard realities that run through our rule of law and human civilization remind us that it is precisely at the level of implementation that human rights continue to be in danger of being ignored, neglected, distorted, and emptied of all meaning. Government and society continues to bear an enormous responsibility to respect, protect, and improve human rights.

To be sure, it is even more difficult to break through barriers at the level of action and implementation than it is at the level of thought and speech. After 30 years of rapid economic expansion, the human rights issues we face are no longer limited to the single element of the right to life. The times are changing, and people's knowledge of and desire for rights is growing stronger and more varied. The types of rights-protection problems that need to be resolved are increasingly complex as well. In the broader context of social transformation, respect and protection of human rights means increasing public investment to strengthen important social services, overcoming institutional inertia and improving the work of government, and sweeping away unreasonable vested interests and bringing fairness and justice to society in return. Improving these areas of implementation requires sufficient political awareness, a courage to reform, and sufficient mechanisms and platforms for the expression and interplay of interests.

Human rights is something naturally inherent, something sacred; it is not a favor to be bestowed on the people or something that can be arbitrarily taken from them. We have already firmly established a national vision and system, but what we hope to see even more is respect, protection, and improvement of human rights in actual practice. When the promotion and protection of human rights is realized in practice, when it can be seen in every action taken by the government everywhere—only then can we really say that the citizens become the masters of the state and "putting people at the center" becomes the core of development.