China issues first 'action plan' on human rights

But the right to free speech can run up against charges of 'subverting state power,' as one recent arrest shows.

BEIJING – The Chinese government published its first-ever National Human Rights Action Plan on Monday. But that won't necessarily transform this country into a paragon of freedom.

The plan is not so much a call to action as it is a bureaucratic chore, responding to the need to show the United Nations that the government is doing something to improve its widely criticized human rights record. It emphasizes protecting “people’s rights to subsistence and development” and pledges to improve the treatment of minorities and discourage the torture of detainees.

But nowhere is there any sign that critics of the system, for example, will be allowed any more leeway.

“One significant human rights problem is that people are imprisoned for crossing the line” into “speech that is considered subversive” points out Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based analyst with the Dui Hua human rights group. “I don’t see any reason to think that they are going to change that line.”

That is bad news for the likes of activist Tan Zuoren. The Action Plan promises to “guarantee human rights in the reconstruction of areas hit by the devastating earthquake” in Sichuan last May, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

But who defines “human rights”? Mr. Tan was taken away two weeks ago, charged with “subversion of state power,” and has not been seen since. His crime? Trying to compile a list of the children who died at their school desks during the earthquake.

That list, apparently, is a state secret. And no Human Rights Action Plan is going to change that.

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