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Pursuit of Excellence: The Past Development and New Progress of the Human Rights Action Plans of China
June 22,2022   By:CSHRS
Pursuit of Excellence: The Past Development and New Progress of the Human Rights Action Plans of China
 
ZHANG Wanhong*
 
Abstract: Since the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in 1993 recommended that countries formulate national human rights action plans, many countries have carried out relevant explorations. Since 2009, China has formulated four series of Human Rights Action Plan of China, which is significant for promoting the development of human rights, enhancing the say in international human rights, reducing social risks and protecting individual rights. The formulation of the plan adheres to the principles of being laws and policies-based and human rights-oriented, and taking into account both the country and society. The first three series of the Action Plans have undergone such evolution as upgrade of guiding principles and goals, refinement of rights content and measures, diversification of responsible subjects, increasingly reasonable framework structure, and more human rights consideration in discourse expression. The fourth series of the Action Plan pays more attention to expanding public participation and the content, improving the supervision mechanism, and further promoting the formulation and implementation of the Action Plan.
 
Keywords: Human Rights Action Plan of China · human rights development · public participation · monitoring and evaluation
 
In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, of which Paragraph 6 of Section III recommends that “each member state may consider whether to formulate its national plans to identify the steps that ought to be taken to promote and protect human rights.” Subsequently, many countries have formulated their national human rights action plans. In 2002, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued the Handbook on National Human Rights Plans of Action,1 laying down specifications and suggestions of the guiding thought, purpose, and course of formulation of national human rights actions plans and further encouraging countries to take the initiative to draw up such plans. According to incomplete statistics, 58 states had formulated 85 series of national human rights action plans as of July 2021. Australia was the first state to formulate a national human rights action plan (1993), while China is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council that formulates and implements national human rights action plans.2
 
Although countries differ on the depth and duration period of their national human rights action plans, these plans do share commonalities in three aspects: First, the overall path of development and general vision of the cause of national human rights; second, the overall adoption of the international human rights mechanism, such as that of its current ratification and implementation, future ratification and adoption plan; third, the goal and specific measures to promote and protect all human rights, including the linkage between current national policy measures and national human rights action plans, such as the National Human Rights Action Plan of Nepal, which states that all concerned ministries, agencies, and organizations shall include the measure to implement the National Human Rights Action Plan in their respective annual work plan, in accordance with the measures reflected in the tenth five-year plan and Government’s Programme of Actions and Economic and Social Development Concept of Nepal.3 Some countries also describe the course of formulation of the action plan and what groups will participate or be included in the plan.4
 
What is the meaning of formulating a national human rights action plan? How to can an effective and workable national human rights action plan be formulated? China began its exploration in the field in 2009 and has successively formulated and implemented four human rights action plans.5 Can one action plan be viewed as a continuance of its predecessor and how do they evolve? What are the highlights and features of the latest Human Rights Action Plan of China? This paper will delve into the practical significance of formulating the national human rights action plans from national, international, social, and individual perspectives; and summarize the main principles considered in formulating the action plans It also sorts out the evolving logic behind the action plans, and extracts the key features of the latest action plan. 
 
I. Significance of Formulating a National Human Rights Action Plan
 
Why is it necessary to formulate a national human rights action plan? The reason lies in governments and international society realizing that “A constantly improving state of human rights requires robust facilitation from determined and concrete actions.”6 The formulation of national human rights plans is of great importance with regards to various aspects, national, international, social, and individual.
 
A. Define the governmental functions and develop the cause of human rights in a precise manner
 
In the legal sense, national human rights action plans are policy documents for each different stage made by the government concerned. Although less binding compared to statutory provisions, nonetheless, they are policy measures to implement the constitutional principle for the respect and protection of human rights, national plans formulated based on government obligations and missions, and visualization of the constitution and laws in the work of the government.”7 The most fundamental content of the national human rights action plans revolves around the implementation of the obligations and duties of the nation in terms of protecting and promoting human rights. The government is the primary subject of duty, of which the law enforcement right and the right to formulate policies can facilitate the efficient function of the cause of human rights. On the one hand, by enacting public policies, the government can implement rules and orders through public policies, and push for swift and effective execution of human rights protection measures with legitimate and rational mandatory policies. For instance, the Chinese government mandates that every enterprise must pay social security for its employees. The old-age insurance for each citizen is gradually being established as a social right.8 On the other hand, a “national human rights action plan is not an abstract human rights manifesto, it…explicitly produces specific standards and protection measures for such rights.”9 As such, a government can advance the cause of human rights in an organized manner with steps and goals laid out. Additionally, the public office holders in administration bureaus and judicial departments at each level may in their daily performance implement the spirit of the action plan and attend to the details of respect for and protection of human rights. National human rights action plans improve the interaction between the nation, government, and human rights by materializing “respect and protection of human rights,” transforming it from a concept to practical government policies and help the notion of human rights permeate every link of the administration and law enforcement through the government’s administrative activities.
 
B. Publicize national commitments and raise the right of speech of human rights in the international arena
 
The formulation and releasing of national human rights action plans are not only part of the government’s efforts to actively disclose and declare its obligations and duties in the cause of human rights, but also represents the government’s will to accept the review and supervision from its own people and the international society regarding its performance in protecting and promoting human rights. Meanwhile, for each country, national human rights action plans and relevant assessment documents are an important way to demonstrate its human rights development to other nations and also a crucial opportunity for the international society to understand the development of its human rights cause. An effective and feasible national human rights action plan is conducive to building a responsible national image, increasing international awareness and recognition of the development of a country’s human rights cause, and helping the nation to gain the initiative and boost its voice in the world. For example, during the third cycle of UN-UPR in 2019, multiple delegations commended China for its formulating of the National Human Rights Action Plan and suggested China “continue to implement” and “ensure effective implementation” of the National Human Rights Action Plan of China.10
 
C. Disseminate the notion of human rights to promote social harmony and stability
 
A national human rights action plan is a vehicle to raise human rights awareness and spread the notion of human rights. By learning from the action plans, public office holders can solidify their human rights awareness and implement the idea of human rights protection when carrying out their duties; and by viewing the action plans, enterprises and organizations can familiarize themselves with the focus of national human rights efforts, according to which they may plan their own actions to work well with governments and other authorities. By studying the action plans formulated by each country, colleges and universities, scientific research organizations, and experts may inspect and monitor the implementation and effect of the plans of their own nation so as to provide suggestions for improvement from their more particular perspectives. Through publication and dissemination of the action plans, people may gain a greater awareness of rights. On the one hand, the formulation, implementation, and dissemination of national human rights action plans can increase the overall social awareness of respecting and protecting human rights; on the other hand, the action plans navigate the national cause of human rights in a way that promotes social harmony as well. The action plans are grounded on equal and coordinated development, which is helpful to promote social equity and justice and make the fruits of development enjoyed by all people. The coherence of the action plans displays the logic and actions of the governmental and national efforts in social governance and striving for people’s benefits. Such coherence is beneficial to strengthen consensus and confidence and facilitate social harmony and stability.
 
D. Uphold individual’s rights and protect the rights of particular groups
 
Individuals are the basic subject that human rights protect. During the formulation of China’s human rights action plans, international human rights standards should be absorbed and internalized so the country learn from the experiences and lessons of other nations while taking into account our own conditions and manifesting the advantages and features of the human rights protection of our nation. The national human rights action plans are a new form added into the national human rights protection framework. “The 26 years of practical exploration has fully demonstrated that the ‘national human rights action plan’ is a culturally adaptive ‘form of policy’ that promotes human rights protection,”11 which facilitates the more comprehensive safeguarding of the rights of individuals and the rights of particular groups. For example, before 2016, China had not specifically stipulated relevant rights for those in temporary detention. The section “Civil and Political Rights” in the National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2016-2020) provided the following rules with restrictive indicators: “Formulating the Law on Detention Houses. The level of legislation for protecting the rights of detainees shall be raised, in addition to enacting related supporting laws, regulations, provisions and rules.” This means during the execution of the plan (2016-2020), relevant authorities were expected to take prompt actions in accordance with the restrictive indicators and refer to the Law on Detention Houses introduced to better protect the rights of this particular group of people.
 
II. Formulate the Consideration Principle of the National Human Rights Action Plan
 
With the publication of the Handbook on National Human Rights Plans of Action issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the worldwide progress of formulating national human rights action plans, it has become the primary focus of research to discuss, conclude, and summarize the enactment experience of the implementation of national human rights action plans. During the formulation of a rational and effective national human rights action plan, many principles have to be considered, including: is the formulation based upon a comprehensive understanding of national conditions? Is it in line with the development trend of the international community? What is the level of government authority (which will concern whether the plan can be successfully implemented)? What is the degree of openness (which concerns the level of trust and acceptance of the public towards the plan)? Given that this dissertation cannot give a holistic examination of the consideration principles with which national human rights action plan are formulated, three major aspects are selected for discussion herein.
 
A. Focus on coordinated human rights protection by resorting to laws and policies
 
Constitutional laws and national guiding policies are the fundamental support of human rights protection as well as the important basis for the legitimacy of an action plan. The formulation of a national human rights action plan must comply strictly with constitutional laws to realize human rights protection and promote social equity and justice. The National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2009-2010) was said to be implementing the “constitutional principles to respect and protect human rights”; the National Human rights Action Plan of China (2012-2015) was said to have been “formulated in accordance with the constitutional principle that the state respects and protects human rights and the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other related international human rights conventions. Improve laws and regulations and implementation mechanisms for the respect and protection of human rights from the legislative, administrative, and judicial aspects. Advance the cause of human rights of China”; the National Human rights Action Plan of China (2016-2020) employed basically the same expression.
 
At the same time, the formulation of the action plans need to align with other ongoing national plans or policies. The Action Plan (2012-2015) stated that: the formulation and implementation of the Action Plan shall “be conducted along with the Outline of the 12th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China, in an effort to combine the cause of human rights with economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological progress.” The Action Plan (2016-2020) specified that: “the Chinese government has formulated the National Human Rights Action Plan of China…in combination with the implementation of the Outline of the 13th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China… The Action Plan defines the objectives and tasks of respecting, protecting and promoting human rights.” Hence, it laid out 11 plans and outlines of development and highlighted the synchronization and integration between these plans and outlines and the economic sector and people’s livelihood. These plans and outlines comprised Full Coverage of Social Insurance, the National Fitness Program (2016-2020), the Program to Enhance the Innovation Capacity of Institutions of Higher Learning, the Program for Rejuvenation of Higher Education of the Central and Western Regions, the Research and Training Program for the Inheritors of Intangible Cultural Heritages, the Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, the Plan of Doubling the Number of People’s Jurors, China's Action Plan Against Human Abduction and Trafficking (2013-2020), the Nutrition-enhancement Program for Students Receiving Compulsory Education in Rural Areas, the National Sign Language and Braille Standardization Action Plan (2015-2020), and the National Program for Women’s Development (2011-2020).
 
B. Deliver pragmatic response to social development concerns under the guidance of overall human rights needs
 
The formulation of a national human rights action plan hinges first and foremost on an assessment of the overall human rights protection needs of the nation, which serves to improve the understanding of status of the human rights subjects and theoretical content. Second, the objectives set out in the action plan must be relevant to the times and social conditions and respond to hot issues. Last, by studying the overall social needs, the action plan needs to prioritize hot issues to address them with concerted efforts. A study showed that by 2019, the majority of the nations that that have introduced their own national human rights actions plans are developing countries.12 Yet the cause of human rights of these nations, which are restricted by their natural environment, history, culture, and economic and social development, is still hindered by noticeable development imbalance, lack of coordination, and unsustainability. The conundrum for the action plans is the “pragmatism” of the plan needs to “respond to urgent social needs” in a “scheduled” and “orderly” manner.
 
China has always given development top priority and prioritized the issues concerning people’s fundamental interests to stay on the path to achieving human rights development with Chinese characteristics. The formulation of the first Action Plan covering the period 2009-2010 was synchronized to deal with the effects of the global financial crisis and a major natural disaster. As a result, a large portion of the plan covered economic, social, and cultural rights and separated the human rights protection in post-Wenchuan earthquake reconstruction as an independent chapter. The Action Plan for 2012-2015 included the concept of PM2.5 — concreted as the indicator “annual average concentration of inhalable particles (PM2.5) in key areas”— as a response to the global concern for sustainable development and environment protection. The Action Plan (2016-2020) provided a response to freedom of speech on the internet, precise poverty relief, a modern property rights system, the building of an ecological environment, and other hot issues. In the Action Plan (2021-2025), the focus has turned to pandemic control and prevention, public health, and health security triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
 
C. Extensively encourage society participation under the guidance of national human rights obligation
 
“One for all; and all for one.” To respect and protect human rights are not only the fundamental obligation of the nation and the government, but also a common obligation of the entire society that calls for universal efforts. A national human rights action plan is generally made as a clarification by a sovereign state to the international society and a blueprint of the national cause of human rights. This decides that the initiators and designers of the action plans are primarily relevant state organs. Take China for example, the implementation of its action plans involves enacting a host of laws and regulations and supporting by-laws, which are mainly applied by organizations and institutions of the governing party, state organs, civil groups, and social organizations. Among these, State organs have the largest domain, which includes legislative bodies (e.g. the NPC, the Standing Committee of the NPC), judicial authorities (e.g. the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate), state administrative institutions (e.g. the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Education). Since the action plans are a significant step to ensure respect and protection of human rights according to constitutional principles by the nation and government, it is necessary to take into account the core functions and legal obligations of these state organs while mapping out human rights development.
 
In the meantime, neither extensive social involvement nor civil groups and social organizations should be overlooked in formulating the action plans. By looking at the latest action plan (2021-2025), one can see the important roles played by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the All-China Women’s Federation, the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China, the China Disabled Persons Federation (CDPF), the China Society for Human Rights Studies, and China Foundation For Human Rights Development. Human rights experts and scholars from several colleges and universities and scientific research institutions, representing social involvement, also contributed to formulating the action plan. In particular, the joint meeting mechanism served to formulate and review the action plan, as Professor Chang Jian put it, “the joint meeting mechanism upholds unity in diversity structure and unifies and combines the forces in the political, legislative, administrative, judicial, and social aspects, giving all-around support to the national human rights action plan.”13
 
III. The Evolving Logic of the First Three National Human Rights Action Plans of China
 
During the 40 years since the reform and opening-up policy took place, China has actively trailed a human rights development path that fits its own national contexts, making numerous achievements in the cause of human rights. The first three action plans were an important exploration of the path of human rights development which has resulted in a distinctive development trajectory and characteristics of progression.
 
A. Upgrade of the guiding principle and strategic goals
 
Compared with the Action Plan (2012-2015), the Action Plan (2016-2020) adopted a more expressed guiding thought by incorporating the guiding principles from General Secretary Xi Jinping’s major policy addresses, the Four-pronged Strategy, and Five Concepts for Development. It clearly defined the “people-centered development approach,” emphasized putting “the protection of people’s rights to subsistence and development in the first place,” and formed a closer link between the Chinese Dream and the people-centered development of human rights.
 
Basic principles have been substantially developed and improved, evolving from “pushing forward the work in a legitimate way, comprehensive way, and pragmatic way” in the Action Plan (2012-2015) to “pushing forward the work in accordance with the law, in a coordinated way, in a pragmatic way, in a balanced way, and with joint efforts” in the Action Plan (2016-2020). The newly added “pushing forward the work in a balanced way” further stressed the principle of human rights equity, ensuring that every individual enjoys all human rights on an equal footing; “pushing forward the work with joint efforts” refers to the common engagement of the whole society for the development of human rights, underlining that human rights development relies on all available forces. The second principle was changed from “pushing forward the work in a comprehensive way” to “pushing forward the work in a coordinated way,” shifting the highlight on the full coverage of every right to the phased characteristics of the action plan with a new focus on a coordinated and balanced range of rights in the national development. The objectives of the action plan were therefore more precise reflecting the greater concern about social issues. For example, under the objective to comprehensively protect economic, social, and cultural rights, the Action Plan (2012-2015) merely enumerated the contents of the right to work, the right to basic living standards, the right to social security, the right to health, the right to education, cultural rights, and environmental rights, while the Action Plan (2016-2020) shed light directly on major social issues such as living standards, public services, poverty eradication, the ecological environment, and property rights with an emphasis on ways to “increase the people’s sense of satisfaction in creating and sharing benefits.” These objectives were effectively bound to other regulatory documents. For example, “promote judicial justice and guarantee litigants’ right to a fair trial” echoed the sections on “improving the exclusionary rule of illegal evidence, duty counsel system, and legal assistance system to enhance the judicial protection of human rights” contained in the Comments on Advancing the Adjudication-centered Reform of Criminal Litigation System. Additionally, the objectives also progressed over time. For example, the objectives set out in the Action Plan (2012-2015) include to “carry out extensive human rights education,” “conduct human rights education in various forms in schools,” and “publicize human rights knowledge throughout the Chinese society,” which evolved into “combine human rights education with national education and nationwide education in spreading knowledge of the law” and “foster a culture featuring respect for human rights” in the Action Plan (2016-2020). It can be inferred that human rights education is moving from an addition to national education to an inherent component of national education and marked the first time that the human rights concept is being fostered as a culture.
 
B. More details of the rights and relief measures
 
The common subjects in the three completed action plans take on a progressively more detailed description in terms of the content of rights. The descriptions continue to manifest deeper implications and greater protection of rights while demonstrating the active reflections and sincerity of the makers of the action plans. For example, in terms of the employment issue in the section “Right to Work,” the terms were “promote employment,” “employment priority,” and “fuller rate of employment and quality employment” respectively in the first three action plans. By “Promoting employment,” the value of the labor is revealed, which leads to the strategy of “employment priority” to further increase the labor force; once the employment rate reaches a certain level, both quantity and quality of labor force are required, which help to define the “fuller rate of employment and quality employment” in the Action Plan (2016-2020).
 
The ever richer contents of rights are brought by social development. An extended package of contents of rights is bound to come with scientific advances and social development. In the internet-related paragraphs in the section “Cultural Rights,” the Action Plan (2012-2015) used “Accelerating internet construction,” which is replaced by the “development of the internet and cyber culture” and elaborated as “An internet content development project shall be implemented, support shall be extended to the digitalization of traditional publishing resources, the knowledge-services capacity shall be enhanced, and encouragement shall be given to the creation of outstanding original works on the internet.” in the Action Plan (2016-2020). It is thus clear that responding to the need for human rights protection in the cyber culture has been an unstoppable trend amid the rapid development of cyber culture.
 
The greater logical depth of the contents of rights and relief measures further promote the beneficial interactions between the government, market, policy, and society. Take the “Right to Social Security” as an example, the Action Plan (2012-2016) complemented the previous content of work-related injury insurance by adding “rehabilitation of work-related injury” apart from specifying “work-related injury prevention” and “compensation.” This provision is helpful to shield workers suffering work-related injuries from consequential negative impacts in future life and employment because of the absence of rehabilitation services, a practical supplement to the relief measures after being injured. In unemployment insurance, the Action Plan (2016-2020) brings to the table “re-employment services” after extending the existing “coverage of unemployment insurance.” Only by providing re-employment services to the unemployed, helping them to find jobs, and building a positive cycle of employment — unemployment — reemployment, can human rights protection be realized.
 
C. Diverse subjects in setting human rights obligations and duties
 
The cause of human rights is one for everyone. The action plans transitioned from “the sole responsibility of the government” to “shared governance with the society” in terms of setting obligations and duties. In the implementation, the work of administrative, judicial, and legislative bodies, enterprises, and social organizations are ever clarified. The Action Plan (2016-2020) stresses joint and shared governance of all forces in the section “Environmental Right” by proposing “forming an environmental-governance system involving the government, enterprises and the general public, and striving to address such pressing environmental problems as air, water and soil pollution, so as to strive for an overall improvement of the environment.” In the “Right to Health” section, it requires that “Private capital shall be encouraged to go to health services, and equal treatment be offered to non-profit private hospitals as well as public hospitals.” In the section “Cultural Rights,” it states “All social sectors are encouraged to take part in the provision of public cultural services”; in the section “Right to Participate,” the action plan specifies “Supporting social organizations to participate in the provision of social services.”
 
Regarding supervision, the Action Plan (2012-2015) and the Action Plan (2016-2020) both explicitly define the assessing role of the joint meeting mechanism for the National Human Rights Action Plan and the supervisory role of the news media. Other than that, for the first time, the Action Plan (2016-2020) proposed to “introduce a third-party assessment mechanism” to the joint meeting mechanism for the National Human Rights Action Plan, driving the assessment mechanism to become more scientific and rational.
 
D. The logical framework and stylistic layout are more reasonable
 
The stylistic structure of the action plans has witnessed certain adjustments in line with the reality. Generally speaking, the “Guarantee of Human Rights in Reconstruction of Areas Hit by the Devastating Earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan Province” established separately in the Action Plan (2009-2010) was removed in the following plan as it was deemed no longer applicable; part of the “Safeguarding Farmer’s Rights and Interests” was modified and inserted into different corresponding rights. “Implementation and Supervision,” a new chapter of the Action Plan (2012-2015) set forth the arrangements and explanation of the work of implementation and supervision of governments at all levels, the joint meeting mechanism for the National Human Rights Action Plan, social organizations, and new media. The Action Plan (2016-2020) saw the most structural changes: first, the section on the “Right to Property” was added to the chapter “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” specifying the institutional work in terms of the incorporation in the Civil Code of modern property rights, rural land property rights, corporate property rights, and intellectual property rights. Second, the section on the “Rights of Detainees” under the “Guarantee of Civil and Political Rights” was no longer separately listed in the Action Plan (2016-2020). Because the detainees are now temporarily rather than permanently detained. They do not belong to any specific group and their rights should be the universal rights pertaining to any person, which makes it inappropriate to include them in a single section. Third, consolidation of the rights to know and the rights to participate, and the rights to expression and the rights to supervision. In practice, the protection of citizens’ rights to know is indispensable from citizens’ participation in social governance, and effective implementation of the right of citizens’ to democratic supervision is undoubtedly indivisible from an augmented space and expanded methods and channels for them to express. These sections become more rational and easier to implement once consolidated. Fourth, the title of “Human Rights Education” was changed to “Human Rights Education and Research” after proposing for the first time to “set up a human rights research platform to provide intellectual support for the cause of human rights.” These adjustments to the stylistic layout granted more rigor and rationality to the structure of the Action Plan.
 
E. The expression and human rights mindset are increasingly clear
 
The text of the Action Plan (2016-2020) reflected a more distinct human rights mindset. For example, in the “Rights of the Person,” the Action Plan (2009-2010) adopted the expression of “prohibit extraction of confessions by torture,” and it specified the countermeasures of “extraction of confessions by torture, corporal punishment,abuse, insult of detainees. The Action Plan (2012-2015) changed the expression to “enhance preventive and remedial measures against extortion of confession by torture” and removed the countermeasures. In the Action Plan (2016-2020), the relevant expression was changed to “ Improving judicial oversight over judicial and investigation means that restrict personal freedom. Efforts shall be strengthened to prevent at source interrogation by torture and illegal collection of evidence.” The change from “prohibit” to “enhance preventive and remedial measures.” and to “improve judicial oversight” signify the language of the action plans has shifted from an intimidating “injunctive” tone to a rational and peaceful tone, showing a distinct awareness of human rights therein. For another example, in the “Right to Social Security” section, the expression “implement the State Council's reform program of the household registration system, remove the difference between agricultural and non-agricultural household registration. Equal development shall be promoted for citizens, making them share the benefits of development equally and have equal access to social security” laid stress on the human rights objectives such as “equal development” and “shared benefits” with an effort to narrow the practical gap in the enjoyment of rights, which manifest the true meaning of “equality” from the human rights perspective.
 
IV. Update of the Human Rights Action Plan (2021-2025)
 
As China’s national action plan on human rights , the National Human Rights Action Plan of China marks the development of human rights in China,indicating that China has entered a new phase to comprehensively advance the protection of human rights.14 The Human Rights Action Plan of China (2021-2025), the latest plan, was published on September 9, 2021. The five-year period of 2021-2025, marks the start of China’s new journey after achieving its first centenary goal of building a moderately well-off society in an all-round way, as it sets out to realize the second centenary goal of goal of building a socialist modern country. “Build on past success and strive for better.” Unique and distinct, the latest action plan indicates that China will achieve 
greater development in the cause of human rights.
 
A. Emphasize public participation in the formulation of the Action Plan
 
“Public participation not only represents the concrete realization of the democratic right in the basic constitutional principle, but also serves as the democratic practice to inspire the citizenship and public spirit. The normalized and institutionalized development of public participation is beneficial to form and solidify the constitutional order and the harmonious society by providing the prerequisite for democracy and legitimacy of public decision-making.”15 An increased level of public participation in the formulation of the National Human Rights Action Plan will enhance the democracy and legitimacy of the textual contents. The right to participation is closely connected with basic rights, albeit not specified in the constitution. General Secretary Xi Jinping stated in his elaboration of the unique advantages of the socialist consultative democracy of China that, in-depth participation of the populace “can extensively unite the wisdom and strength of the whole society in promoting reform and development and fix the problem of low consensus on various policies and tasks and the difficulty to implement.”16 During the formulation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, social organizations, new media, interest stakeholders, and individual citizens should be encouraged to participate where equal conservations are created and suggestions are submitted to government bodies at all levels. Such practice can help the public to keep updated with the national human rights status and oversee relevant authorities in delivering their promises. Experience and practices of human rights development in many nations show that the self-governance of the society needs to be fostered, thus the important mission of human rights protection can be transferred to the society.
 
The steps to formulate the fourth Human Rights Action Plan of China (2021-2025) were almost identical to the first three. First, the leading institution under the joint meeting mechanism filed the motion, then the member units of the joint meeting mechanism submitted materials of their own. Subsequently, an expert panel, formed by experts of colleges and universities and scientific research units commenced to draft the action plan. More joint meetings and symposiums were then held among heads of each unit, experts, and scholars to conduct deeper studies and research. Comments and suggestions were solicited on the first draft from member units, social groups, non-government organizations, institutions of higher learning, research institutes, and the entire society, according to which the first draft was repeatedly revised until finalized. During this process, the level of public participation was raised while a feasibility analysis of government and administration and theoretical research by experts and scholars was produced. Valid comments from social organizations and civil groups, and rational suggestions from research institutes were incorportated. The draft also employed enhanced empirical research, interviews, workshops, and other means for maximized absorption of people’s comments and recommendations, solidifying popular consent toward the action plan.
 
B. Expand the content framework of the Action Plan
 
First, the Action Plan (2021-2025) incorporates the contents of business and human rights. According to the recommendations of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (UNWG), countries should start to formulate independent “National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights,” but based on specific contexts, they may integrate the content of business and human rights into other development plans and policy documents.17 In response to this, the Action Plan (2021-2025) specifies that: “Promoting responsible business conduct in global supply chains. It will encourage Chinese businesses to abide by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in their foreign trade and investment, to conduct due diligence on human rights, and to fulfill their social responsibility to respect and promote human rights.” In reality, business and human rights had been adequately included in the first three action plans. For example, the section “Human Rights Education and Research” in the Action Plan (2016-2020) states that: “China shall support and encourage the enhancement of human rights education and training in enterprises and public institutions. The state shall develop a human rights culture, and take respecting and guaranteeing human rights as an important factor in decisions concerning both domestic and foreign investment.” The fifth chapter “Fulfillment of Obligations to Human Rights Conventions, and International Exchanges and Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights” also says that “China shall urge its overseas enterprises to abide by the laws of the countries in which they are stationed, and fulfill their social responsibilities in the process of conducting foreign economic and trade cooperation, providing assistance and making investment,” which points out the Chinese enterprises that provide overseas assistance shall also fulfill their social responsibilities in the same process. Additionally, many paragraphs are directly related to corporate responsibilities in sections concerning the right to work, environmental rights, and the rights of the disabled, e.g. “urge telecommunication service operators and e-commerce enterprises to provide barrier-free information to the disabled,” etc.. Unfortunately, these measures are scattered and spread across the texts, and not harmonized with the UN Guidance on National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights. Currently, as the second-largest economy and the sponsor of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has witnessed swift development of its domestic and cross-border industrial and commercial businesses. The addition of the section “Business and Human Rights” is more than reasonable and received much attention and positive feedback from the world.
 
Second, the Action Plan (2021-2025) allocates a separate chapter for environmental rights to give them equal status with economic, social and cultural rights, civil rights and political rights. This change is not only manifested in the structure, but also reflected in the overall layout and development path for the protection of environmental rights in China. The distinct path for the protection of environmental rights in China is that such rights are embodied by environmental laws and regulations that are enacted in accordance with the programs and policies of the Communist Party of China and the national guidelines for the building of an ecological civilization, of which the implementation is guaranteed by rigid environmental law enforcement and environmental justice. The provisions of the environmental rights in the National Human Rights Action Plan are an important link between the fundamental policy of ecological civilization and the citizens’ enjoyment of environmental rights. Therefore, the elevated status of environmental rights in the latest action plan not only corresponds with the “five-sphere integrated national strategy,” but also demonstrates the critical features of the development concept of human rights in China.
 
Last, the latest action plan provides a holistic response to the new challenges brought by fast-changing internet technology and digitalization. It lays out the details for smart medical care, smart old-age services, smart cities and digital rural areas,smart library systems, the digital and intelligent upgrading of traditional accessible facilities, smart litigation services, internet-based public services, administration of state affairs on the internet, the building of digital culture, and public comments and recommendations that are comprehensively collected and timely responded to by using big data, cloud computing, AI, and other technologies. At the same time, the latest action plan also provides effective measures to close the digital gap between urban and rural areas, prevent a digital gap in online education, formulates labor security policies for internet platforms, improves the security system for individual information rights and digital property rights, and cracks down on data theft and other cybercrimes. Driven by intelligence and equipped with digital technologies, these measures aim to expand each individual’s free space to achieve overall development.
 
C. Improve the scientific mechanism of supervision and review
 
An improved supervision and review mechanism is pivotal to ensure the effectiveness of the fourth action plan. Prior to the formulation of the action plan, its necessity, legitimacy, coordination, feasibility, and effectiveness were considered. During and after the implementation of the action plan, the economic and social cost, economic and social benefit, and economic, social, and environmental implications will be evaluated at appropriate times. To have greater independence and diversity of the subjects of supervision, the latest Action Plan (2021-2025) will continue to adhere to the principle of separating the subjects formulating the action plan from those who assess it, while making great efforts to pursue the third-party assessment mechanism initially proposed in the third Action Plan (2016-2020) with a focus on the goal of establishing an assessment indicator system.
 
Though a third-party mechanism was introduced in the assessment of the Action Plan (2016-2020), the most critical data for assessment were still provided by the State Statistics Bureau and the member units of the joint meeting mechanism for the National Human Rights Action Plan of China. Except for restrictive indicators, the assessment had to rely on the comparison of government functions at different levels, where detailed indicators that can measure the government performance were absent. The latest Action Plan (2021-2025) explicitly expresses the need to study and build an indicator system for the assessment of the cause of human rights. In the future, the data for assessment can refer to the source from UN sustainable development goals (SDG) and data provided by capable, specialized social organizations or research institutes with high social credit may be used when appropriate. The assessment of the cause of human rights needs a summary of the lessons learned. Among part of the observation indicators used on “promote equal participation of women in the management of state and social affairs,” indicator 1 was the ratio of women among the members of the National People’s Congess (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at all levels; indicator 2 was the ratio of women in the NPC, government, and CPPCC leadership at all levels; indicator 3 was the ratio of women over 30 percent in the village committees of the CPC; indicator 4 was the ratio of women being over 10 percent among the village committee directors of the CPC; indicator 5 was the ratio of women over 50 percent in neighborhood committees. Evidently, the design of the indicator 1, 3 and 5 assessed the gender ratio in primary level self-governance and local public offices, i.e. the scope of their participation. While indicator 2 and indicator 4 underline women’s ratio in the leadership, i.e. the depth of women’s participation in public affairs. These indicators can, to some extent, represent women’s presence in the state and social affairs management positions and can be used to urge every department to adjust allocation of positions between men and women and push for women’s participation in the management in an equal manner. As a result, the above five indicators may effectively assess the implementation of “promote equal participation of women in the management of state and social affairs” in China. The experience needs to be summarized and converted to par to a part of the assessment indicator system for human rights work performance.
 
The first three National Human Rights Action Plans of China covered 12 years, a period called “a ji” in ancient China. Guoyu, Jin (Volume 4) said: After preparing for a Ji, one may have sustained success. After the first three action plans, we have gathered the momentum to issue the Human Rights Action Plan of China (2021-2025), which is not only consistent with its predecessors, but also represents a new blueprint for the cause of human rights in China. The world has only a few nations that have enrolled consecutively three or four national human rights action plans. The cause of human rights in China will go even further as its action plans become more mature in the future.
 
 (Translated by HU Genfu)
 
* ZHANG Wanhong ( 张万洪 ), Executive Dean of the Institute of Human Rights and Professor of School of Law, Wuhan University. This dissertation is a work of the current stage of “Industry and Commerce and human right: The latest national, regional, and global practical research” (20JJD820006), a major program launched by The National Education and Training Base for Human Rights of the Ministry of Education. An earlier edition of this dissertation was presented and read out on the academic seminar “2019 · 10th Anniversary of the National Human Rights Action Plan,” sponsored by Guangdong University of Finance & Economics. Deliberations from the critics and participants of the forum, and relevant and important revision advice from anonymous reviewers are appreciated. Zhao Shukun and Wang Ruoyin also contributed to this dissertation.
 
1. “Handbook on National Human Rights Plans of Action,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, accessed August 10, 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/training10en.pdf.
 
2. Scotland issued two national human rights actions plan in 2013 and 2017 respectively. But the United Kingdom did not formulate any national human rights action plan as an entire state. See “Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights”, SNAP, accessed August 10, 2021, http://www.snaprights.info/.
 
3. “National Human Rights Action Plan (2004),” Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers, Nepal, accessed August 10, 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/NHRA/Nepal_NHRAP.pdf.
 
4. The most detailed research written in Chinese of the human rights action plans of countries in the world. Jing Dongri and Xu Yao, et al., “The International Comparative Study of the National Human Rights Action Plans”. SJPC (2021); Xu Yao, “The Study of the Formulation, Implementation, and Review of the National Human Rights Actions Plans in the World”, SJPC (2021).
 
5. Four National Human Rights Action Plans of China have published and implemented - National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2009-2010), National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2012-2015), National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2016-2020), Human Rights Action Plan of China (2021-2025), respectively referred to as the Action Plan (2019-2010), Action Plan (2012-2015), Action Plan (2016-2020), and Action Plan (2021-2025).
 
6. Zhang Wanhong, Human Rights Action Plan Initiate a New Age of Rights Protection, Chutian Metropolis Daily, April 15, 2009.
 
7. Liu Huawen, The New Blueprint of the Cause of Human Rights with a Soft Law Nature, Legal Daily, June 13, 2012.
 
8. Li Erping, The Study on the Government Function in the National Human Rights Action Plan of China, Pacific Journal, 2009 (2): 74-79.
 
9. Xiao Jinming, Human Rights Framework and Guarantee System of Rights with Chinese Characteristics — Comment on “the National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2009-2010),” Contemporary Law Review 5 (2009): 24.
 
10. Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of China, AHRC/40/6, sections of 28.72 (Turkmenistan), 28.73 (Cambodia), 28.74 (Kyrgyzstan). The Chinese government accepted these recommendations. See Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of China. Addendum: Views on conclusions and/or recommendations, voluntary commitments and replies presented by the State under review, A/HRC/40/6/Add.1.
 
11. Xu Yao, “National Human Rights Action Plans: A Macro View from a Global Perspective”, Chinese Review of International Law 5 (2019): 62.
 
12. 43 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have published 59 national human rights action plans in total, accounting for 75.4% of the countries that have published a national human right action plan and 75.6% of the number of published action plans — 3/4 of their respective totals. Xu Yao, National Human Rights Action Plans: A Macro View from a Global Perspective, Chinese Review of International Law 5 (2019): 60.
 
13. Chang Jian, “Study on the Joint Meeting Mechanism for the National Human Rights Action Plan”, Human Rights 2 (2019): 14.
 
14. Dai Jing, “The National Human Rights Action Plan of China: Promote the Development of the Cause of Human Rights through Action”, Study Times, May 8, 2019.
 
15. Wei Jianxin, Public Participation in the Constitutional Jurisprudence Context, Tribune of Political Science and Law 5 (2014): 52
 
16. Xi Jinping, Address at the 65th Anniversary of the Founding of the CPPCC (September 21, 2014), People’s Daily, September 22, 2014.
 
17. “Guidance on National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights,” UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, accessed August 10, 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/documents/issues/business/unwg_%20napguidance.pdf.
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