A Big Deal

China has just released a document it refers to as a human rights action plan (A very balanced NYT article on the plan is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/14/world/asia/14china.html?scp=1&sq=china%20%22human%20rights%22&st=cse  Note:  This article even contains a cautiously positive assessment of the plan by a representative from Amnesty International (which has always in my view been among the most thought and balanced of the human rights NGOs.)

The Shanghai Daily report on the action plan (http://www.shanghaidaily.com/sp/article/2009/200904/20090414/article_397604.htm) states:  “The blueprint ‘gives priority to the protection of the people’s rights to subsistence and development,” while acknowledging that “China still confronts many challenges and has a long road ahead in its efforts to improve its human rights situation.'”  In other words, a large part of the document addresses economic and social issues in China (increased job opportunities, expanded healthcare coverage, etc.).

However, issues that we in the US would think of as more traditional “political” rights, are also addressed.  Specifically (according to the NYT), the report addresses issues such as “rights to a fair trial, to participate in government decisions and to learn about and question policies… measures to discourage torture, like requiring interrogation rooms to be designed to physically separate interrogators from the accused.”

This is a big deal.

I say it is a big deal not because I believe that the practices the report is intended to address will disappear overnight.  It is a big deal because it gives the lie to the view of some that China’s political system is frozen in time and not moving in any way toward a more open system with strengthened rights for individuals.

Now I get that some cynics may say that the Chinese government put out this document just as a PR gambit, but has no intention of implementing these changes.  I don’t believe that, but even if true, let’s think about why the government would feel compelled to issue such a PR document.  This paper was issued in Chinese and is aimed clearly at the Chinese people, not foreign audiences.  At a minimum it reflects the pressure the Chinese government is feeling from its population over abuse of those detained by the police and unfair trials (there have been some very high profile cases in the Chinese press on these subject) and the general push by China’s citizens for more information on government policies and for input on their formulation.  The fact that the Chinese government/Party feels pressure over such issues is in itself significant.  Ten years ago this was not the case.

I am squarely in the camp of those who believe that continued engagement with China, including economic engagement by US companies, academic and government-to-government exchanges, etc., has already and will continue over time to contribute to the evolution of the Chinese political system into one which provides greater protection for individual rights and more input by Chinese citizens into government decision-making.  This newest action plan is yet another reflection of this evolution.

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