The Chinese government on Tuesday released a white paper detailing the progress made in human rights in 2012, underscoring citizens' rights to a clean environment and the expression of opinion.
"The cause of human rights in China has entered a stage of planned, sustainable, steady and comprehensive development," says the white paper, published by the State Council Information Office under the title "Progress in China's Human Rights in 2012."
A highlight of the white paper was an emphasis on human rights protection in ecological construction, according to Zhang Wanhong, an associate professor with the Public Interest and Development Law Institute of Wuhan University.
"Environmental pollution has become a serious issue in China. Everyone should be entitled to good health and a good environment," he said.
Facing increasing resource constraints, severe environmental pollution and ecosystem degradation, China is working to raise awareness of the need to respect, accommodate and protect nature, give high priority to making ecological progress and incorporate it as a primary government goal, according to the white paper.
China has adopted environmental protection as a basic national policy. The country has combined its human rights endeavors with economic, political, cultural, social and ecological construction, the paper says.
According to the paper, a legal and policy framework has been established to protect citizens' environmental rights. The government has further strengthened environmental monitoring systems and worked to protect citizens' right to live in a clean environment.
"Environmental protection matters to the human right issue of not only our generation, but generations to come," said Zhang Yonghe, a professor with the Center for Education and Study of Human Rights under the Southwest University of Political Science and Law.
"The government has realized it has to be far-sighted when it comes to the protection of human rights," said Zhou Wei, director of Sichuan University's Center for Human Right Law.
The white paper, with its elaboration on the government's achievements in improving people's living standards, says development is the key to solving all existing problems and facilitating the progress of human rights in China.
The country has prioritized people's rights to subsistence and development and made efforts to promote the comprehensive and balanced development of their economic, social and cultural rights, as well as their civil and political rights, it notes.
"After years of unremitting efforts, China has reached a higher level in terms of people's living standards, democracy, rule of law, cultural development, social security and environmental protection," says the white paper.
In 2012, the annual per capita net income for both urban and rural residents increased, hefty investment was directed to poverty reduction programs, housing conditions were improved for both urban and rural residents and the state made proactive efforts to boost employment, according to the white paper.
Practical measures have been taken to ensure citizens' right to know and right to be heard, according to the white paper.
Deepened reform and the rapid development of information technology have given the public greater power to acquire information and express their opinions, it notes.
Government information, such as budgets and expenses, has become more accessible to the public. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has continued to press ahead with making Party affairs public and established a spokesperson system for Party committees, the paper says.
The Internet has become an important channel for citizens to exercise their rights to know, participate, be heard and supervise, as well as become an important means for the government to hear public opinions, according to the white paper.
Democracy building at the grassroots level has further expanded citizens' right to participate, the paper says.
An important milestone in the development of China's human rights was the formation of a socialist legal system with Chinese characteristics in 2010, according to the paper. The legal system "ensures that the country's human rights protection is done within the framework of the law."
In 2012, "respecting and protecting human rights" was added to the amended Criminal Procedure Law. The white paper described the addition as an example of major progress in human rights protection and of great significance in punishing criminals, protecting the public and safeguarding citizens' right to litigation.
In the judicial field, China has enforced strict controls over and prudently applied the death penalty and protected the rights of detainees, the paper says.
In 2011, the death penalty was removed as a form of punishment for 13 economic and non-violent crimes, reducing the number of cases in which a defendant could be charged with the death penalty by nearly one-fifth.
According to the white paper, the government has adopted effective measures to respect and protect the right of self-governing organs in ethnic autonomous areas to exercise autonomy in recent years.
Marked improvement has been made in public services as well, the white paper says. Rapid progress has been made in education and social security, medical care coverage has been expanded and cultural services have been made more equitable, according to the white paper.
China upholds a policy of freedom of religious belief and ensures this freedom as an important part of its citizens' human rights, the paper says.
The white paper praised social organizations' role in promoting human rights causes. In 2012, China's social organizations attracted over 25 million volunteers to participate in charity work.
From 2010 to 2012, the government constructively participated in UN human rights activities and made active efforts to meet the obligations stipulated by the international human rights conventions it has joined, the white paper says.
"But serious challenges remain as China is still on the way to improve the level of human rights protection," Zhang Yonghe said.
The white paper is China's 10th report on human rights since the government began releasing such reports in 1991. The ninth report was released in 2010.