Two years ago, China issued a human-rights action plan for 2009 and 2010. Last week, it announced that all targets have been met.
The Chinese definition of human rights is heavily skewed toward economic, social and cultural issues rather than political ones. For example, in discussing the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the official assessment of the action plan said the government had "helped 1.77 million people find jobs," ensuring that each family had at least one member who was employed.
But there's nothing in the action plan on such things as the right of citizens to decide who should govern them - that is, the right to change the government. In fact, this right is considered a crime in China, where the Communist Party monopolizes political power. Any attempt to change this situation constitutes "inciting subversion of state power," the offence for which Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel peace laureate, is serving an 11-year prison term.
China has been under heavy criticism over its human-rights record in recent years, with the government cracking down on dissidents and petitioners, increasingly "disappearing" the former and incarcerating the latter.
The human-rights action plan is largely seen as a public-relations effort. One indication is the "joint meeting mechanism" for the plan, which was led by the State Council's Information Office and the Foreign Ministry, suggesting that foreigners are the target audience.
Significantly, Beijing also said it was taking steps to prepare for the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a major human-rights treaty that China signed in 1998 but hasn't ratified. The U.S. and the European Union have called for China to ratify this treaty, which guarantees political rights that currently don't exist or aren't honoured in China.
The assessment report said China was amending laws to prepare for the ratification. It cited amendments to the Law on Lawyers in 2007 and to the State Compensation Law last year. The amended lawyers law provides protections for lawyers meeting criminal suspects and defendants. But it conflicts with other legislation, and it's unclear whether lawyers have benefited. The compensation law was amended to grant citizens greater power to obtain compensation when their rights are violated by the state. While the old law excluded cases of negligence from state compensation, the amended law allows compensation in negligence cases.
Ratification would be a major step forward for human rights in China. The covenant, for example, disallows arbitrary arrest or detention and protects freedom of expression. It also says no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country, a right that China currently doesn't recognize for political dissidents who've fled overseas or been expelled.
But, of course, Beijing could enter reservations to the covenant's provisions so they wouldn't be binding on China. If it did, then ratification would be regarded by the rest of the world as little more than a farce.
While the announcement suggests that China is serious about eventually ratifying the treaty, it's unlikely to happen soon. (It took the U.S. 15 years to ratify and, when it did, the Senate decided on sweeping reservations.) But Beijing is under a microscope where human rights are concerned, and reservations that make ratification meaningless would be counterproductive since it wouldn't improve China's image. But if China wants the world to believe it's serious about upholding international human-rights standards, it will have to accept this challenge.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.