Chinese Intellectuals Urge Ratification of Rights Treaty

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HONG KONG -- More than 100 Chinese scholars, journalists, lawyers and writers urged their national legislature on Tuesday to ratify a major human rights treaty, in the latest challenge from intellectuals seeking to curtail arbitrary Communist Party power.

The petition calling on the party-controlled National People's Congress to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came a week before the congress holds its annual full session, which is to install Xi Jinping as China's president, succeeding Hu Jintao.

Copies of the document appeared on Chinese blogging Web sites and Internet forums, but were often quickly removed. It was unclear whether government censors demanded the removals.

Ratification of the treaty would "promote and realize the principles of a country based on human rights and a China governed by its Constitution," the petition said. "We fear that due to the lack of nurturing of human rights and absence of fundamental reverence and assurances for individuals' freedom, rights and dignity, if a full-scale crisis breaks out, the whole society will collapse into hatred and brutality."

The call, also circulated by e-mail, carried the names of 121 backers, including several who said they lived in Hong Kong or Macau.

The petition was the latest display of the demands for political change confronting China's new leadership. Several people who signed it said they hoped to press Mr. Xi and his colleagues to live up to vows of greater respect for the rule of law and citizens' rights that they have made since Mr. Xi became Communist Party leader in November, when Mr. Hu retired from that post.

"This has become increasingly important, because on the one hand violations of rights have become so common, while on the other hand, citizens' awareness of their rights has risen sharply," said Cui Weiping, a translator and essayist in Beijing who signed the petition. "This proposal is really quite mild," said Ms. Cui, who formerly taught at the Beijing Film Academy. "I see this as giving the government a chance to show that it is willing to make improvements."

Since Mr. Xi came to power, Chinese advocates of political liberalization have urged the Communist Party to abide by the Constitution, which in theory offers some protection to free speech and other rights. Some reform advocates see some signs of hope in the government's vow to overhaul "re-education through labor," which is used to jail citizens without trials, and some point to Mr. Xi's own promises of greater official accountability.

"Any organization or individual must act within the scope of the Constitution and the laws," Mr. Xi said Saturday at a meeting of the Communist Party's 25-member Politburo, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Mr. Xi has, however, also said that the top-down, one-party rule must remain sacrosanct, and the drafters of the petition took care not to challenge the party directly, instead calling on it to live up to past vows to respect citizens' rights.

"This is an important moment when the new leadership has expressed its commitment to rule of law, and we want those words to be acted on," said He Weifang, a professor of law at Peking University and prominent advocate of political liberalization, who confirmed he signed the petition.

But the Chinese government appears reluctant to ratify the treaty, despite saying over many years that it was preparing to do so, said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.

The Chinese government signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998, but ratification by the legislature would bring greater international scrutiny through a monitoring committee, Mr. Bequelin said.

The covenant came into force in 1976, and 167 states are party to it. Yet even North Korea has acceded to the treaty, with no discernible improvement in its harsh treatment of its people, Mr. Bequelin said.

"What is at stake in ratification for the Chinese government is not so much the international legal obligations that would come, but rather the domestic pressures to live up to its own promises," he said.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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