Our guest blogger is Shiyong Park, an intern with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
On April 13th, China released the National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2009-2010), becoming the 26th country to respond to the call by the United Nations for such a plan. In the 54-page document, first announced last November, the CCP outlined reforms ranging from increased transparency to rural health care. Although China’s first comprehensive human rights plan warrants praise, it should only be welcomed with a critical eye.
The document states “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,” reaffirming the regime’s intention to promote development at the cost of human rights when necessary. In a time when even its neighbor Russia’s President Medvedev rejects the idea of giving up rights in exchange for prosperity, the CCP’s stance is inadequate, and it is important to recognize that the Chinese people cannot enjoy the benefits of economic prosperity without basic rights.
The most notable failures of the plan are in the protection of civil and political rights. While the plan sets to eliminate “illegal detention” by law enforcement, it does not abolish the administrative system of “re-education through labor,” in which civic leaders and political dissidents are often sent to labor camps for up to four years without a trial.
The promise of curbing torture, forced confessions, and arbitrary arrests are also undermined by the conditions in more than 2,700 pre-trial detention centers and an unknown number of unregistered jails. The New York Times and Amnesty International report that since February, at least seven inmates have died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody.
Despite the shortfalls, the publication of the two-year plan is a significant step for a nation with a history of neglecting basic human rights. But it is not enough to simply reaffirm the principles already enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. China must open up for discussions of concrete cases, such as the conviction of Hu Jia, a prominent AIDS activist, and the detention of Liu Xiaobo, one of the authors of Charter 08. In both instances, the men’s “right to be heard” outlined in the Action Plan and the freedom of speech engraved in the Constitution were violated, and the situation must be addressed.
In the shadows of the U.S. State Department’s negative China human rights report in February, the ambitious Action Plan provides a reason for optimism. However, we cannot let the promises of a better future cloud our sight in observing the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, nor can we forget about the current reality of neglected and systematically violated human rights. To overcome its stigma, China must couple the reaffirmation of principles with tangible actions.