BEIJING (Reuters) - China still has "a long way to go" before its citizens can enjoy full human rights, a senior Chinese official said in a rare admission of the challenges ahead, pointing to social conflict and even rising house prices as stumbling blocks.
Wang Chen, head of the State Council Information Office, said in a speech published in the English-language China Daily Wednesday that while China had made remarkable developments on this front, the way forward would be hard.
"Affected and restricted by natural, historical and cultural factors, and economic and social development levels, the cause of human rights in China is still facing many difficulties and challenges, and there is still a long way to go before achieving the lofty goal of the Chinese citizens fully enjoying human rights," Wang said.
"Our national development remains significantly unbalanced and uncoordinated because of ... wide gaps in income distribution, increasing pressures on prices, soaring housing prices in some cities, food safety problems, insufficient and unevenly distributed educational and medical resources, unbalanced urban and rural development, and increasing social conflicts caused by illegal land requisitioning," he said.
China has long rejected criticism of its human rights' record, saying providing food, clothing, housing and economic growth are far more relevant for developing countries like it, pointing to success at lifting millions out of poverty.
Wang, whose office is the Cabinet's main propaganda organ, said that China must "prioritize the people's right to subsistence and development in the course of human rights development."
Wang said that China plans to draft a new "human rights action plan" for 2012-2015, "with the aim of expanding democracy, enhancing the rule of law, improving the people's livelihood and safeguarding human rights."
While senior leaders, including Premier Wen Jiabao, periodically promise China's citizens democracy and human rights, the last few months in particular have been marked by a sweeping crackdown on dissidents and activists.
And after some muted moves to give citizens stronger legal protections early in his time as president, Hu Jintao has made enforcing firmer control over China's increasingly diverse and fractious society a feature of his time in power.
In an apparent admission that the rule of law the government so stridently proclaims it upholds has problems, Wang said that
"we should ... be aware of our weakness in safeguarding the people's democratic rights and interests."
Wang's comments underscore Beijing's continuing concerns about rising discontent sparked by a growing wealth gap, rampant corruption and illegal land seizures, issues that the current crop of top leaders have staked their legacy on.
But Wang's speech is unlikely to appease many rights activists, under mounting pressure from authorities who have cracked down on dissent since February, fearing that anti-authoritarian uprisings in the Arab world could inspire protests against one-party rule.
Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Sugita Katyal