BEIJING China has promised its citizens stronger legal protection, improved incomes and expanded channels to complain as part of its first "human rights action plan," which casts the Communist Party government as guardian of rights.
The plan, issued by state media on Monday, marks another step in the ruling Party's efforts to seize the initiative against critics at home and abroad who accuse it of stifling free speech and jailing dissidents, especially in the sensitive 20th year since troops crushed pro-democracy protests in Beijing.
Chinese officials reject those criticisms and say their idea of human rights focuses on lifting living standards of hundreds of millions of people, many still stuck in poverty.
"China still confronts many challenges and has a long road ahead in its efforts to improve its human rights situation," states the plan released by the officials Xinhua news agency.
China "gives priority to the protection of the people's rights to subsistence and development," it adds.
The plan and Beijing's other vows to improve human rights will make little difference as long as courts and media remain under Party domination and citizens' rights to assemble and speak out remain strictly curtailed, said Teng Biao, a Beijing human rights lawyer who has been detained for his activities.
"This is a symbolic act. It's substantive impact will be very little," said Teng. "If the judiciary and government system don't undergo fundamental change, human rights problems won't undergo fundamental change either."
But the document, released by the information arm of the cabinet, spells out goals for 2009 and 2010 that Teng said may raise restive citizens' expectations of faster improvements in rights and welfare despite the economic downturn.
The plan says the government will seek "equality in right to basic health services," a big challenge in a country with a chasm between urban rich and rural poor.
The poor, elderly and disabled are promised improved welfare. Despite the economic slowdown that has left 23 million or more rural migrants jobless, the document says 18 million of them will find urban jobs in the next two years, and urban and rural incomes will keep rising.
The country's courts, which come under Party control, will ensure "impartial and fair trials," the plan says.
Many Chinese people bring complaints to special government petitions offices, but they often face harassment and detention by officials and their complaints often fester.
The plan says the government will seek to ease this backlog of rancor by opening up more telephone, email and online channels to hear and solve such complaints.
But the plan shows no sign that the Party is ready to contemplate major political liberalization. On Monday, the People's Daily -- the Party's official paper -- said Communist leadership must remain a bedrock of the nation's political order.
"If this document is widely disseminated and Chinese people have a better idea of their rights, then that's a good thing," said Phelim Kine, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization. "But our concern is that many of the key abuses ... really aren't addressed in this document."
(Editing by Nick Macfie)