Bringing human rights into the mainstream in China-人权研究院
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Bringing human rights into the mainstream in China

By Zhang Wei, December 27, 2014


Nearly one week before the coming 2015, China's State Council Information Office called for a mid-term assessment meeting on the National Human Rights Action Plan (2012-2015) in Beijing.Fifty-one relevant state organs and national NGOs were present. Dozens of ministerial level officials showed up in the meeting. I attended the meeting, representing the Institute for Human Rights at the China University of Political Science and Law, one of the eight national bases for human rights education and training.

I was quite impressed by the attendance for this event in the busiest time of the year. To me, this meeting is not only an occasion to show how much every government office cares abouthuman rights, it is also a good opportunity to exchange experiences and raise the level of human rights awareness in China, in particular for people in the central government. The more these kinds of meetings are held, the less sensitive human rights topics become. This is particular clear to those of us who have been working in the field of human rights for decades.

The Chinese government is getting more and more comfortable about raising the awareness of human rights issues among the public. The change to a positive human rights attitude will provide further space for the improvement of human rights in China. So far, most of the central government people dealing with human rights action plans or white papers have a relatively sound understanding of legal standards for human rights.The situation is not as good for those working in the local governments. They handle most individual cases, sometime very sensitive issues, but with much less exposure to knowledge of human rights. Probably for this reason, Cai Mingzhao, minister of the State Council Information Office, requested to provide human rights education in educational activities and training at all levels, in particular in all Party schools and civil servant training programs.

China is noted around the world for its economic and social development plans. One of the successful experiences is to make these plans measureable and predicable. This same old methodology was applied to the drafting of the National Human Rights Action Plan. Each and every participating institution was required to provide plans with achievable goals, which can be assessed at any given stage. During the meeting on Dec. 23, five related institutions reported how much they had done with regards to their plans, what laws were amended, which practices were changed, and how much financial resources were used to improve certain human rights weaknesses. Many of these numbers sound very impressive.

A mere understanding of human rights awareness is not enough. But this is a possible first step to be taken. Some government departments may still not quite understand why on earth they were called to participate in this action plan. This doubt may be enhanced even more after Minister Cai suggested that every participating institution should take human rights issues into account when they draft their Thirteenth Five Year National Economic and Social Development Plans. But to many human rights scholars, this is a quite exciting and pleasant announcement. It is a clear call to bring human rights into the mainstream in each and every activity that public institutions undertake. In the meantime, it requires a better understanding and knowledge of human rights. International Human RightsTreaties will provide positive guidance for the future development of human rights in China.

Liu Hua, the special representative for human rights from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pointed out that the Chinese government was very keen on fulfilling its international human rights obligations. She emphasized that China did not wish to fight with any country on human rights, but rather hopes to cooperate and conduct dialogues on human rights disputes.

Chinese scholars studying human rights aboard may have suffered from criticisms of China on human rights issues in classes and debates. In the Western media, many reports about China concern human rights abuses and violations here and there. If you read them every day, you may feel that China is hell on earth. No wonder once in an international conference in Beijing, an African professor stood up and asked Chinese scholars to tell him why the China they read about in the Western media is so different from the real one they experience. He even urged Chinese scholars to do something to change this. We understand what he means. It may be not fair to China. But international criticisms have also been very helpful to the development of human rights in China. If it weren't for the debates in the UN treaty bodies, many of us might not have understood how much we should do to change Chinese domestic laws and practices according to UN standards.

Human rights are not to be praised at home and aboard. We need to be frank and straight to the point, with reasonable analysis. Thanks to many foreign governments and international organizations, we have learned a lot through dialogues and exchanges. It is also a time to share our experiences and pains with others who are in need.


The author is an associate professor and co-director of the Institute for Human Rights at the China University of Political Science and Law.


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