China says progress made on human rights, points to raised living standards

BEIJING (AP) — China said Sunday it has made progress on human rights, pointing in particular to improved living standards, but an international rights group quickly described the government's assessment as unrealistic.

Human Rights Watch said the government failed to mention that since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has gotten tougher on freedom of speech, has stepped up restrictions on the media and Internet and cracked down on lawyers and activists.

In a report released Sunday titled "Progress in China's Human Rights in 2009," the government highlighted its 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) economic stimulus package that helped the country bounce back from the global financial crisis.

It said per capita income rose 8.5 percent in 2009 for rural residents and 9.8 percent for urban dwellers and that spending on health services and education has increased. It acknowledged that more needed to be done.

While the report focused less on increasing freedoms, it claimed Chinese people were able to exercise freedom of speech on the Internet, which it said has become an important channel for communication between the authorities and the people.

Human Rights Watch's Asia advocacy director Sophie Richardson said the report "is at best a missed opportunity and at worst a clumsy whitewash by failing to render a realistic assessment of China's human rights problems."

Richardson said China needs the political will to enforce the human rights already guaranteed by law and not tolerate officials who trample over those rights.

The group noted that last year, the government targeted several high-profile dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo, who wrote Charter 08, a daring appeal for expanded political freedom. Liu and other dissidents have been prosecuted and jailed on charges of inciting subversion or possession of "state secrets."

China, which is ruled by a one-party authoritarian regime, has long faced international criticism for falling short on basic rights like freedom of speech, religion and the right to a fair trial, even as it has aggressively promoted economic development.

Last year the government released its first human rights action plan that promised to do more to prevent illegal detention and torture, and to boost the overall living standard of minorities, women, the unemployed and the disabled.

Sunday's report said that plan has been "effectively implemented."