The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is an important part of the International Bill of Rights. As countries around the world are at diverse development levels, different countries often focus on the different problems they face in realizing human rights, even though most countries share a consensus on the desirability of a universal principle of human rights.
The Chinese government attaches importance to the rights to subsistence and development, and has been making huge efforts to fulfill its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. There can be no doubt it has had great success.
China submitted its report on its actions to implement the covenant to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in late June and it is clear that it pays consistent attention to the covenant and strives to implement it effectively.
Spiteful international critics conveniently ignore the great efforts China has made to secure such achievements. Without an objective understanding of China's social and economic development, these critics will never understand the country and so be misled by their assumptions.
Taking into account suggestions offered by the CESCR, and based on China's specific national conditions, the Chinese government has put in place a number of measures to fulfill its obligations and implement the covenant in recent years.
First, ensuring and promoting employment is a priority for the government. In 2007, the National People's Congress promulgated the Employment Promotion Law in order to establish employment assistance and service systems, while establishing concrete measures to eliminate employment discrimination and ensure equal rights to all in all occupations.
In recent years, 10 million new jobs have been created annually and the unemployment rate has consistently remained below 4.3 percent, giving the country a crucial foundation with which to weather the global financial storm.
Second, many measures have been introduced to raise people's incomes. In urban areas, standards for minimum wages have been raised several times, and in the countryside, the government has eased farmers' burdens by abolishing all agricultural taxes. Accordingly, in urban areas the average income increased from 7,703 yuan in 2002 to 17,175 in 2009. In rural areas the average income rose from 2,476 yuan in 2002 to 5,153 in 2009.
Third, great improvements have been witnessed in social security: The new rural cooperative medical system was established in 2003, the rural minimum living security system and urban resident basic medical insurance system were implemented in 2007, and the new rural social pension insurance program was piloted in 2009.
Fourth, huge funds are being used to reform the medical system. The central government plans to inject 331.8 billion yuan and local governments another 518.2 billion yuan from 2009 to 2011 to support the changes.
Fifth, the government has gradually exempted compulsory education tuition fees between 2006 and 2008, fully realizing free compulsory education for the whole nation. The distribution of teachers, education facilities and resources has also been tilted to favor the less developed central and western areas so as to promote education equity.
All the above achievements are unprecedented for a developing country with such a large population and demonstrate the Party's continuing endeavors to lead the whole nation to universal human rights.
Besides domestic progress, China's effective economic monitoring system and responsible attitude toward the world economy have exerted a strong influence in supporting world economic stability and growth, especially during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and lately the global financial storm triggered by the subprime meltdown in the United States.
This progress has been achieved on a relatively low level of social development and there is still much room for further improvement.
However, after three decades of rapid development, it is no surprise that problems have also arisen. In developing the economy, local governments seem to be obsessed with GDP figures. Now, by stressing that development be people-oriented, the central government is trying to restrain the GDP-oriented mindset and redirect local governments' efforts to improve people's well-being.
China also faces a serious challenge creating enough jobs. It is estimated that some 24 million people will enter the job market annually during each year of the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015). Moreover, the government is also facing growing complaints about the widening income gap.
China's society is also aging, so more efforts should be paid to take care of the elderly, especially given the fact that many elderly people now only have one child, many of whom are probably not working near their parents.
All these are serious challenges, and if not handled properly, may affect China's social stability and national security. The government should make it a priority to seek solutions to them.
China never avoids the universal nature of human rights, but human rights are a goal that can only be achieved step by step, taking into consideration a country's changing conditions. Pursuit of this goal encourages persistent efforts and consistent policy adjustments by the Chinese government to fulfill its obligations under the covenant.
The author is the director of the Centre for Human Rights Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
(China Daily 11/11/2010 page8)