Welcome progress in rights for the disabled

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 December, 2003, 12:00am

Deng Pufang has long been praised within China for his tireless efforts on behalf of the country's disabled, and it is only appropriate that he has now won international recognition as well.

The United Nations award for human rights, given every five years, this time goes to Mr Deng as well as five others, including the career diplomat killed during an attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The award, the first human rights prize given to a Chinese national, heralds not only Mr Deng's achievements as founder of the China Disabled Persons Federation but also how far the country as a whole has come in raising the standard of living for its handicapped citizens.

Thanks in large part to the federation's advocacy, more than three-quarters of the disabled now receive education, compared with an official figure of a mere 6per cent just over two decades ago. Discrimination in school admissions and employment still persists, to be sure, with employers commonly specifying physical requirements in recruitment ads. But the government is seeking to tackle these problems by preparing a national law banning labour discrimination against the disabled and by participating in drafting an international convention on rights for the handicapped.

If there has been a change in attitude towards a group that has up to now been treated as marginal, the driving force behind it has been Mr Deng, the paraplegic eldest son of the late leader Deng Xiaoping.

The newfound commitment towards protecting and enfranchising the disabled is part of China's adoption of a more forthright approach to human rights in general. Yet one reason other nations are more inclined to take the country to task for its human rights record than to reward such progress is that the scope of the opening and of the definition of human rights is, to western eyes, limited.

While China is stepping up its formal legal protection for previously disadvantaged groups, including women and the rural poor, there has been little liberalisation on the political rights front. The high-profile Liu Di, jailed for posting anti-government opinions on the internet, has been released ahead of Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to the United States, but many less-famous dissidents remain in prison for having done the same. As long as the definition of human rights is limited to achievement of personal potential and does not include the right to influence governance, there will be tensions.

This does not, however, detract from Mr Deng's success. His dedication and his role in focusing the country's attention on the needs of the disabled deserve recognition. The new law and the international convention now under discussion should make even more progress possible.