Reporting from Beijing -- Facing growing international
criticism over human rights abuses, China is preparing a national "action plan"
on such issues as torture and freedom of speech, but critics today were
skeptical the move would bring much change.
Beijing's announcement comes
three months before the United Nations Human Rights Council makes a scheduled
review of the status of human rights programs in the Communist nation.
China was also publicly embarrassed last month when a
prestigious European human rights prize was awarded to Hu Jia, a dissident
jailed for speaking out on AIDS issues and calling for environmental protection.
Beijing had warned that the award would damage relations between China and the
In a story published in state-run media, the State
Council Information Office this week said the action plan would involve
"expanding democracy, strengthening the rule of law, improving people's
livelihood, protecting rights of women, children and ethnic minorities, and
boosting public awareness of human rights."
Critics called the move a
public relations ploy.
"Most international observers who follow human rights in
China consider this mostly eyewash," said Jerome Cohen, a senior fellow at the
Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "It would be wonderful if the Chinese
government would open up and discuss concrete cases. Human rights watchers want
to talk about reality, not principle."
Others were more
"Five years ago you couldn't even say the words 'human
rights' in China, so the government should be commended for uttering the phrase
at last," said Sara Davis, executive director of Asia Catalyst, which provides
support to Chinese groups that promote human rights.
needed is legal reform and criminal procedure law. That would give their plan
some real teeth," she said. "Also protections against police abuse. If those are
included, this is truly something we should be celebrating."
also recently faced domestic pressure from politically oriented bloggers and a
growing middle class to guarantee more human rights.
Some said they hoped
that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama would apply more pressure on China in
regard to its treatment of its citizens than has President
Chain-smoking a cigarette, a 39-year-old salesman in Beijing who
identified himself only as Yu because he feared government retribution said he
would applaud such a move.
"That's good for the Chinese people," he said.
"The Chinese government gets pressure from all sides on this issue. But the
common people will benefit. It's not bad for us."
Some activists worried
that Beijing's promise for a new human rights strategy was promoted by the
nation's information office, in charge of shaping public image, and Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, an agency with relatively little domestic clout. The state-run
media have reported that the plan will include contributions from the courts,
parliament and nongovernmental groups.
"But the real issues that concern
the world, including the torture of prisoners and free speech, are the domain of
the police -- the Ministry of Public Security -- and they're not mentioned as
being at the table," said Joshua Rosenzweig, Hong Kong research manager for the
Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S.-based human rights group. "The Ministry of Foreign
Affairs has absolutely no authority over China's police. That doesn't inspire
much confidence that real human rights issues will be addressed or dealt
He added, however, that the action plan marks the first time that
China will commit to a public strategy on human rights that activists can later
use as a score card for progress.
Zhao Zhengqun, deputy director of
Nankai University's Center for Human Rights Research and an action plan panel
member, told the South China Morning Post that the government's strategy
reflected a sea change in China's attitudes toward human rights
"The safeguarding of human rights had long been regarded as a
liability brought by international treaties, but the action plan indicates that
the government is now committed to that cause," he said. "The country shows more
willingness to accept the concept of human rights."
But torture and other
human rights abuses within China remain a major concern with many activist
groups. Recently, for example, the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without
Borders called for Chinese officials to release several activists they say are
being imprisoned without cause.
One man reportedly was tortured and
beaten by prison guards after organizing a meeting in his rural village that
government officials say was designed to overthrow the government. The
dissident, identified as Yang Maodong, was deprived of sleep for 13 days, the
group said; he was reportedly also tied to a wooden bed, with his arms and legs
in chains, for 42 days, and was regularly given electric shocks.
the will to put an end to such abuses, we will see little change," said
Rosenzweig of the Dui Hua Foundation. "Good ideas are not going to be enough.
There has to be the will to change. That's always the problem."
is a Times staff writer. Staff writer Mark Magnier contributed to this