China’s ‘right to be heard’ often means the right to conceal

China’s National Human Rights Action Plan for 2009-2010 (English/Chinese), released Monday, contained plenty for the domestic media to praise, but enough omissions for international rights activists to jump on. 

Among the various analyses available online, the one on the DuiHua Foundation blog is worth a read. It includes a translation of a Chinese-language commentary published on the Web site of the Changjiang Daily in Wuhan. The writer, Li Qiang, comments that the plan’s positive significance “lies in its clarification of the basic elements of the protection of human rights in China and turning these national values and strategic goals into a roadmap for the near term.” But, he points out: “In some areas, whenever there is an accident involving major loss of life, the first thing that local government and enterprises think to do is conceal and cover up.”

The section on biaoda quan or freedom of expression–translated in the English version as the strangely passive “right to be heard,” doesn’t contain much to excite the press freedom advocate. Language like, “rules governing the Internet will be improved to promote the orderly development and application of the Internet … in accordance with the law”–is redolent of the officialese all-too-often used to justify stringent restrictions on online freedoms. Sections on the rights of detainees and right to a fair trial are more specific and would correct many of the injustices meted out against China’s numerous imprisoned journalists (28 as of December 1, 2008) if they were effectively implemented.

But effective implementation is another question. David Bandurski at HK University’s China Media Project pointed out last year that efforts to take advantage of the State Council’s Ordinance on Openness of Government Information of May 1, 2008 had, yet to bear fruit.

In March, Bandurski wrote a piercing analysis of the threat currently facing investigative journalism in China for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He argued convincingly that commercial interests are increasingly combining with and working through the Communist Party media branches to quash news stories, not just through top-down edicts, but through subtle personal and financial incentives.

The Sanlu milk scandal, in which state TV said that an industrial chemical, melamine, has been discovered in milk products, “said more about the growing pressure exerted on media by corporations and their party backers than it did about the gumption of Chinese journalists,” Bandurski wrote.

“The impact on social morale has been very real as the dragons of Market Leninism have grown more audacious, and investigative reporters have surrendered the field. Experts suggest the recent upsurge in social unrest, work-related accidents and food-safety scares is directly attributable to the decline of media supervision.”

Any engagement by the Chinese government in human rights dialogue is arguably a positive step. But this week’s action plan, even if fully carried out, does little to address the challenges that analysts like Bandurski believe are the real obstacles to “being heard” in China.