China will issue a “human rights action plan” that will seek to “expand democracy and strengthen the rule of law,” a Chinese official said this week.
This is the first time the communist state that constantly faces international criticism on its human rights record has announced a plan to improve citizens’ rights.
“Respecting and protecting human rights … is an important objective and principle of the Chinese Communist Party and the government,” Wang Chen of the State Council Information Office told the official Xinhua news agency.
He did not say when the plan will be released and did not mention if the powerful ministries of public security and state security will be involved, according to Reuters.
The plan that is said to be a blueprint for future reform would involve “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,” the news agency reported.
But the announcement has been met with skepticism as human rights groups accuse Beijing of pulling a public relations ploy three months ahead of a review of the country by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
"Most international observers who follow human rights in China consider this mostly eyewash," said Jerome Cohen, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, according to the Los Angeles Times. "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."
Yet others were more optimistic about the announcement, saying that China is at least recognizing the importance of human rights.
"Five years ago you couldn't even say the words 'human rights' in China, so the government should be commended for uttering the phrase at last," said Sara Davis, executive director of New York-based Asia Catalyst, which provides support to Chinese groups that promote human rights.
"What's really needed is legal reform and criminal procedure law. That would give their plan some real teeth," she said. "Also protections against police abuse. If those are included, this is truly something we should be celebrating."
China is well known for jailing political dissidents and religious minorities, including house church Christians, which are not part of its government-sanctioned religious bodies. It is also known for torturing prisoners and imprisoning people without trial.