In its new National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP), the Chinese government conditioned its respect and enforcement of universal rights on what it calls its "principle of practicality."
The preamble to that "principle" reiterates the Chinese government's existing public position that it "respects the principle of universality of human rights." However, the "principle of practicality" places limits on the government's enforcement of those rights by stating that it "also upholds [those rights] proceeding from China's national conditions and new realities to advance the development of its human rights cause on a practical basis." The absence of any criteria for "national conditions," "new realities" or a "practical basis" for universal rights enforcement effectively renders this "principle" little more than an opt-out clause.
What will the Chinese government be opting out of? An obvious choice is the peaceful expression of opposition to an often abusive status quo, which it interprets as a threat to its monopoly on power, or it could be the use of forced disappearance and torture in response to unrest among ethnic minority populations in both Tibet and Xinjiang. Maybe they have in mind the often relentless persecution of outspoken defenders of human rights, such as the disabled activist Ni Yulan, sentenced in April 2012 to a two-and-a-half year prison term on spurious charges of "making trouble" and "fraud." Perhaps the Chinese government is thinking of the continued use of "black jails," unlawful detention facilities which ensnare thousands of petitioners from the rural countryside each year in Beijing alone.
While "pursuing practicality" came as a surprising step backward in public commitments, the other inadequacies of China's latest human rights action plan come as no surprise. The first NHRAP, launched in 2009, deserved credit for marking an explicit rhetorical shift from the Chinese government's traditional prioritization of "rights and subsistence and development" over civil and political rights to an acknowledgement that "all kinds of human rights are interdependent and inseparable." However, its absence of specific benchmarks for human rights improvements and the lack of an effective implementation mechanism rendered the plan aspirational rather than actionable. No Chinese activist would agree with the Chinese government's July 2011 declaration that it had fulfilled "all tasks and targets" of the plan.
The new NHRAP, which is supposed to run through 2015, mirrors its predecessor's ambiguous statements of intent unsupported by any concrete measures for enforcement. Although the plan's civil and political rights section calls for "preventing unnecessary detention" through judicial review of the legal necessity of such incarceration, it provides no mechanisms or guidelines to ensure that Chinese government officials and security agencies adhere to possible recommendations for detainee release.
The most encouraging portion of the new plan, and the section which suggests its drafters might have actually responded to increasingly vocal domestic public concern, is its environmental rights section. The NHRAP commits the government to:
Strengthen its environmental protection work to guarantee the public's environmental rights, focusing on serious environmental pollution affecting the people's life, like heavy metal pollution, drinking water pollution and air, soil and marine contamination.
Considering the government's shameful record of covering up environmental health threats, particularly lead pollution, through censorship and victimization of whistleblowers, recognition of the need to address these issues is long overdue. Unfortunately, structural impediments and the government's reflex tendency to prioritize economic development over enforcement of existing standards aimed at minimizing environmental threats to public health and safety are serious obstacles to even the most well-meaning environmental health initiatives.
Another apparently positive move is the plan's call for reforms of the implementation of the death penalty. All death penalty trials in the second instance are now to be "open to the public." Death penalty reviews will include questioning of the defendant and "listening to the opinions of his/her attorney." These steps appear to be encouraging moves toward greater transparency in the handling of capital trials. However, the plan has no substantive details for overcoming China's opaque judicial posture towards death penalty cases, which includes the ongoing designation of death penalty statistics as a state secret. That designation makes it difficult to judge the effectiveness of initiatives to reduce the estimated thousands of executions which occur in China each year. As China still reportedly executes more people each year than the rest of the world combined, many activists had hoped for more progress in this NHRAP.
Some of the most distressing aspects of the new NHRAP are in what it omits. The document makes no mention of reforming China's household registration, or hukou, system which denies social welfare benefits to China's 250 million migrant workers and prevents their children from accessing schools. The sole mention of the word "migrant" is a goal listed in the "cultural rights section" that "migrant workers will be brought into the public cultural service system," with no substantive details. The plan also makes no mention of the abuse of China's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population. Despite the Chinese government's growing international footprint through investment, resource extraction and infrastructure projects across the developing world, the plan provides no human rights standards for such activities abroad.
Another troubling aspect of the new NHRAP is the absence of any mention of what government units, organizations, agencies, experts or academics assisted in the drafting of the plan beyond reference to the State Council's Information Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The first NHRAP included a list of dozens of contributors which at least gave the impression that the document was the result of some form of consultative process with relevant agencies. The lack of any such indications in this latest plan, and in particular the absence of any sign of participation or buy-in from China's security agencies, which are responsible for the overwhelming majority of human rights abuses in China, suggests a severe foundational weakness of the plan's objectives and likelihood for success.
One aspect of the new plan continues a long tradition: the official distortion of the reality of China's human rights situation. The plan states that the government will "guarantee citizens right to vote and be elected" despite the fact that the Chinese Communist Party maintains a 62-year monopoly on power by preventing the development of a pluralistic political system that would allow citizens to vote for their political leaders and parties of choice. The plan states that the government will "continuously support trade unions" without mentioning that the Chinese government prohibits independent trade unions and limits all labor organizing to the state-affiliated All-China Federation of Trade Unions. The plan's assertion that the government will take measures "safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of news agencies, journalists and other persons concerned" is laughable given the Chinese government's pervasive censorship system and the restrictions — backed by punitive financial and legal reprisals — placed upon journalists reporting on the many "sensitive" issues the government deems off-limits for news coverage.
China greatly needs a meaningful and enforceable human rights mechanism. This should be the result of meaningful broad-based consultation across Chinese society backed by the political will to effect change. By downgrading the government's commitment to universal rights and failing to effectively identify China's human rights problems or provide a roadmap to address them, the Chinese government not only misses an opportunity but may be playing with fire. Popular discontent over rampant corruption, severe environmental degradation and abuses of power contribute to many of the more than 100,000 "mass incidents" which occur across the country each year. Thus far these protests have not congealed into a national movement. However, so long as the Chinese government prioritizes empty rhetoric and falsehoods over the realities of human rights enforcement, popular discontent will grow and the government's cherished goal of stability may someday be at risk.
Phelim Kine is the Senior Researcher of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.