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The first National Human Rights Action Plan of China has just been published for the period 2009-2010. What are the motivations behind publication? Is this a genuine attempt to improve human rights in China or just intended to show that officials take human rights seriously? Is it an effort to ward off domestic concerns?

Is it a response to foreign concerns and pressure? Where does it fit in with wider government policy? Is the 20th anniversary of Tiananmin, less than two months away responsible for its timing. Many questions but too early for many answers.

The human rights addressed in the action plan are already guaranteed by the Constitution, although not necessarily practised. No fundamental reforms of the political system are proposed. The focus is on progressing the application of human rights under the present governance, with the primacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The document states that the plan was framed; first, in pursuit of the basic principles prescribed in China’s Constitution, the essentials of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and aimed at improving laws and regulations upholding human rights; second, adhering to the principle that all human rights are interdependent and inseparable, the plan encourages the coordinated development of economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights, and the balanced development of individual and collective rights; and third, in the light of practicality and China’s reality, the plan is stated to ensure the feasibility of the proposed goals and measures, and “scientifically promote” the development of the cause of human rights in China.

The Chinese government asserts that it makes sure that the constitutional principle of the state respecting and protecting the human rights of its citizens is implemented. While respecting the universal principles of human rights, the Chinese government in the light of the basic realities of China, gives priority to the protection of the people’s rights to subsistence and development, and lawfully guarantees the rights of all members of society to equal participation and development on the basis of facilitating sound and rapid economic and social development.

The drawing up of the Plan apparently involved broad participation by the relevant government departments and all social sectors (53 organizations) as well as experts from universities and research institutions. Joint meetings were then said to be held on many occasions to conduct thorough discussions; and there were several symposia with representation from over 20 organizations (such as law associations).

The rights addressed in the 21 000 word document are the rights to work, to basic living conditions, to social security. to health and to education; cultural and environmental rights; safeguarding farmers’ rights and interests; and guaranteeing human rights in the reconstruction of areas hit by the devastating earthquake.

The Plan guarantees civil and political rights, namely the rights of the person and of detainees, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religious belief, and the rights to be informed, to participate and to oversee. The rights and interests of ethnic minorities, women, children, elderly people and the disabled are also guaranteed. Education in Human Rights includes the traditional media and the Internet.

The Plan states that China will continue to fulfill its obligations to the international human rights conventions to which it has acceded, and initiate and actively participate in exchanges and cooperation in the field of international human rights. China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1998 and the government has repeatedly stated their intention to ratify, once again in the plan itself.

The official Xinhua news agency said, “The government admitted that ‘China has a long road ahead in its efforts to improve its human rights situation.’ ”

The document does not seek to make the courts independent of CCP control. Nor, of course, to permit other parties or political groups to hold power. Instead, it focuses on trying to advance respect for human rights within the existing bureaucracies. A state does not have to be a western-style democracy in order to protect human rights, although human rights are generally much more protected in such democracies.

Professor Jerome Cohen of New York University, a specialist in China’s legal system, said that the action plan was the result of growing worries in the Chinese leadership about public dissatisfaction with security forces and even outright hostility to police officers. “There is a concern growing even at the Politburo level about the rising dissatisfaction of the people against the public security authorities,” he said.

The release of the plan by the Information Office of China’s State Council, or cabinet, suggests that the plan is designed partly with public relations in mind, Mr. Cohen said. But if widely circulated in China — and the report has received considerable attention in the Chinese state-run media — it could contribute to changes. Western, as well as Chinese, human rights advocates accept that China has made substantial progress over the last 20 years in improving many social and legal protections.

It has to be accepted that complete implementation of the plan will need several years of work by national, provincial and local governments and CCCP officials, many of whom do not welcome limitations to their power. The action plan should assist lawyers and others in China by providing clearer guidance to the authorities.

Is this a genuine attempt to improve human rights in China? After all, the Chinese Constitution of 1982 contained a clear commitment to a list of human rights, eg Article 35 which stated that, Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” These rights, a quarter of a century later, have still not been granted. It is fair therefore to ask whether the new Plan will make a difference.

A recent China Daily article says, “only a radical reform of the system will bring an end to the scandals.” Whatever the motives behind the publication of the plan, it goes much further than a mere public relations exercise and exposes the government to challenge on its stated commitments. This leads me to the conclusion that the exercise is not just ‘window dressing’. Why would the CCP give a hostage to fortune? Another white paper on human rights could just as easily have been issued, rather than a plan with target dates.

The Beijing leadership is deeply concerned to maintain social stability and minimize unrest during the economic downturn. The plan appears to be an effort to bring pressure at provincial, city, county and village levels to eliminate excessive abuse. Whether it succeeds will very much depend on whether individuals and groups will use the document to challenge officials, and the extent to which the media is allowed to report. In the past the constitution has not been much help. The plan could change this. Its length and putting dates against actions specifically facilitates the monitoring of abuses.

We should therefore take the documentat face value and welcome it as a step in the right direction But we should ensure that commitments in the Action Plan are closely scrutinized for performance.

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