“New China Plan a Step Backward For Universal Rights Protection”

Beijing has issued a new human rights plan, and Human Rights Watch has given it a much-deserved evisceration:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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