BEIJING — Facing international criticism over human rights abuses, China is preparing a national "action plan" on such issues as torture and freedom of speech, but critics Thursday were skeptical that the move would bring much change.
Beijing's announcement comes three months before the United Nations Human Rights Council is to review the status of rights programs in the communist nation.
China was also publicly embarrassed last month when a prestigious European human rights prize was awarded to Hu Jia, a dissident jailed for speaking out on AIDS issues and calling for environmental protections. Beijing had warned that the award would damage relations between China and the European Union.
In an article published in state-run news media, the State Council Information Office said this week that the plan would involve "expanding democracy, strengthening the rule of law, improving people's livelihood, protecting rights of women, children and ethnic minorities, and boosting public awareness of human rights."
Critics called the move a public relations ploy.
"Most international observers who follow human rights in China consider this mostly eyewash," said Jerome Cohen, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "It would be wonderful if the Chinese government would open up and discuss concrete cases. Human rights watchers want to talk about reality, not principle."
Others were more optimistic.
"Five years ago you couldn't even say the words 'human rights' in China, so the government should be commended for uttering the phrase at last," said Sara Davis, executive director of New York-based Asia Catalyst, which provides support to Chinese groups that promote human rights.
"What's really needed is legal reform and criminal procedure law. That would give their plan some real teeth," she said. "Also protections against police abuse. If those are included, this is truly something we should be celebrating."
China has recently faced domestic pressure from politically oriented bloggers and a growing middle class to guarantee more rights.
Some said they hoped that President-elect Barack Obama would apply more pressure on China than President Bush has in regard to treatment of citizens.
A Beijing salesman, who identified himself only as Yu for fear of government retribution, said he would applaud such a move.
"That's good for the Chinese people," he said. "The Chinese government gets pressure from all sides on this issue. But the common people will benefit. It's not bad for us."
Some activists worried that Beijing's promise of a new human rights strategy was being promoted by the nation's information office, in charge of shaping public image, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an agency with relatively little domestic clout. The state-run media have reported that the plan will include contributions from the courts, parliament and nongovernmental groups.
"But the real issues that concern the world, including the torture of prisoners and free speech, are the domain of the police -- the Ministry of Public Security -- and they're not mentioned as being at the table," said Joshua Rosenzweig, Hong Kong research manager for the Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S.-based human rights group.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has absolutely no authority over China's police. That doesn't inspire much confidence that real human rights issues will be addressed or dealt with."
He added, however, that the action plan marks the first time China is committing to a public strategy on human rights that activists can later use as a scorecard for progress.
Zhao Zhengqun, deputy director of Nankai University's Center for Human Rights Research and an action plan panel member, told the South China Morning Post that the government's strategy reflected a change in attitude.
"The safeguarding of human rights had long been regarded as a liability brought by international treaties, but the action plan indicates that the government is now committed to that cause," he said. "The country shows more willingness to accept the concept of human rights."
But torture and other abuses remain a major concern with many activist groups.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders released a statement Thursday welcoming the release of writer and cyber-dissident Liu Xianbin, who was sentenced in 1999 to 13 years in prison for "inciting subversion of state authority." But the group said that 49 such dissidents were still being held.
The group recently reported that one man was tortured and beaten by prison guards after organizing a meeting in his village that officials say was designed to overthrow the government. Yang Maodong was deprived of sleep for 13 days, the group said; he was reportedly also tied to a wooden bed, his arms and legs chained, for 42 days, and was given electric shocks.
"Without the will to put an end to such abuses, we will see little change," Rosenzweig said. "Good ideas are not going to be enough. There has to be the will to change. That's always the problem."
Times staff writer Mark Magnier contributed to this report.