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November 7th, 2008
China's New Human Rights Initiative

In the face of international criticism for its human rights record, including on behalf of President-elect Barack Obama, China announced on Tuesday that it will draft its first “national action plan” on issues such as torture and freedom of speech. Xinhua News Service, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, reports the plan will be a blueprint for “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.” It is to be drafted by a panel of governmental, non-governmental, legal, and academic bodies.

Professor Zhao Zhengqun, one of the academics serving on the panel, says this move reflects a watershed moment in China’s attitudes towards human rights issues: “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.

But critics are dismissing the initiative as a public relations ploy, aimed at pre-empting further criticism of China’s human rights record when it faces a review by the United National Human Rights Council in Geneva next February. Jerome Cohen, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says, “Most international observers who follow human rights in China consider this mostly eyewash. 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.”

China has come under intense scrutiny for a number of human rights abuses this past year, including a violent crackdown on protesters in Tibet in March and increased repression of petitioners and rights activists in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in August. The Chinese government was especially embarrassed when human rights activist Hu Jia, sentenced to three and a half years of prison for speaking out publicly about AIDS and about environmental issues, won the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. June 2009 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which could provoke additional pressure for the government to improve its human rights record.

The news of the action plan came on the same day that the advocacy group Human Rights in China reported on the disappearance by government officials of one of China’s first independent candidates in local elections.

Wide Angle’s
The People’s Court reported on the lengths to which Chinese people must go to obtain justice in the country’s present legal system.

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