Two years ago, China issued a human rights action plan for 2009 and 2010. Last week, it announced that all targets have been met.

China claims to have paid particular attention to the needs of underprivileged women, ethnic minorities, migrant workers, the disabled and homeless children.

The Chinese definition of human rights is heavily skewed toward economic, social and cultural issues rather than political ones.

For example, in discussing the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, official assessment of the action plan, issued by the State Council’s Information Office, said that the government had “helped 1.77 million people find jobs,” ensuring that each family had at least one member who was employed.

But there is nothing in the action plan on such things as the right of citizens to decide who should govern them — that is, the right to change the government.

In fact, this right, a characteristic of democratic countries, is considered a crime in China, where the Communist Party monopolizes political power. Any attempt to change this situation constitutes “inciting subversion of state power,” the offense for which Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel peace laureate, is serving an 11-year prison term.

One genuine step forward cited by the assessment report is the recent abolition of the death penalty for 13 types of economic and nonviolent crimes, which accounted for nearly a fifth of all crimes subject to capital punishment.

China has been under heavy criticism over its human rights record in recent years, with the government cracking down on dissidents and petitioners, increasingly “disappearing” the former and incarcerating the latter.

The human rights action plan is largely seen as a public relations effort. One indication is the “joint meeting mechanism” for the plan, which was led by the information office and the Foreign Ministry, suggesting that foreigners are the target audience.

Security agencies, which are responsible for human rights violations, do not seem to have played much of a role.

Significantly, the Chinese government also announced that it was taking steps to prepare for the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a major human rights treaty that China signed in October 1998 but has not ratified.

The U.S. and the European Union have called on China to ratify the treaty, which guarantees political rights that currently do not exist or are not honored in China.

The assessment report disclosed that China was amending laws to prepare for the ratification. It cited amendments to the Law on Lawyers in 2007 and to the State Compensation Law last year.

The amended lawyers’ law provides protections for lawyers meeting with criminal suspects and defendants. However, the amendment conflicts with other existing legislation and it is unclear that lawyers have benefited.

The State Compensation Law was amended to grant citizens greater power to obtain compensation when their rights are violated by the state.

While the old law excluded cases of negligence from state compensation, the amended law allows compensation in negligence cases.

Ratification of the ICCPR would be a major step forward for human rights in China. The covenant, for example, disallows arbitrary arrest or detention and protects freedom of expression.

It also says that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country, a right that China currently does not recognize for political dissidents who have fled overseas or who have been expelled.

But, of course, Beijing may, if it wishes, enter reservations to provisions of the covenant so that they would not be binding on China. If so, then ratification would be regarded by the rest of the world as little more than a farce.

While the announcement suggests that China is serious about eventually ratifying the treaty, it is unlikely to happen soon.

It took the United States 15 years to ratify and, when it did, the Senate decided on sweeping reservations. Other Western countries also entered reservations, so it would not be surprising if China did the same thing.

But Beijing is under a microscope where human rights are concerned, and reservations that make ratification meaningless would be counterproductive since it would not improve China’s international image.

Ratification would mean regular reports to a United Nations human rights committee, whose members have consistently taken a tough stand on compliance with the covenant. This is a prospect that China is unlikely to relish.

But if China wants the world to believe it is serious about upholding international human rights standards, this is a challenge that it will have to accept.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist (Frank.ching@gmail.com). Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1

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