China open letter calls for political reforms | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 27.02.2013
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China open letter calls for political reforms

In an open letter to the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, intellectuals have demanded the government ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in 1998.

On March 5, China's National People's Congress will convene for its annual session. This year, however, it marks the beginning of a new legislative period - one which will be led by Xi Jinping, who will be officially elected as the country's leader at the gathering.

Each year, petitioners race to make their demands for change ahead of the parliament session.

In the latest in a string of open letters, over 100 Chinese intellectuals - among them, legal experts, prominent thinkers and politicians - have called on the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (L) talks with Vice President Xi Jinping (R) after the fourth plenary meeting of the National People's Congress's (NPC) annual session at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11, 2012. (Photo: LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Xi Jinping (left) will be officially elected president on March 5

"On the eve of the opening of the 12th National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China, as China's new government prepares to take the stage," the letter starts, "we solemnly and openly propose the following as citizens of China: that the [ICCPR] be ratified, in order to further promote and establish the principles of human rights and constitutionalism in China."

The ICCPR was signed by the government in Beijing in October 1998 but has yet to be ratified. One of the signatories of the letter, political scientist Dr. Wu Qiang, told DW it was high time for that to happen.

"If the People's Congress fails to ratify the pact in the coming five-year legislative period - and perhaps even fails to address it at all - then China's position as a veto power in the UN Security Council must be seriously reconsidered" as it would indicate that there was no "consensus over basic, universal rights" in the country.

Beijing only signed the covenant at the end of the 1990s, according to Wu, because it "desperately wanted to get into the World Trade Organization."

"But the fact that it has still not been ratified over a decade later only shows the hesitant and conservative attitude of Beijing's circle of power."

Deputies attend the opening ceremony of the Fourth Session of the 11th National Peoples Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 5 March 2011

The National People's Congress convenes each March in the Great Hall of the People

Human Rights Watch welcomed the open letter, calling it a "powerful signal."

"The people who signed that letter have risked a lot. Experience has shown that the Chinese government does all it can to prevent such letters from getting out," said Wenzel Michalski, Germany director of Human Rights Watch. He also called it a victory for the petitioners that the letter was able to be published online despite the secret service, whose "responsibility is to squelch such dissent before it even breaks out."

New tone, old demand

In an earlier open letter written in December, 2012, over 70 people demanded "urgent reforms to the system" lest the country succumb to a "violent revolution."

It read, "If reforms to the systems urgently needed by Chinese society keep being frustrated and stagnate without progress, then official corruption and dissatisfaction in society will boil up to a crisis point and china will once again miss the opportunity for peaceful reform and slip into the turbulence and chaos of violent revolution."

The latest letter, however, was significantly more moderate in its tone.

"It tries to make a reasonable, fact-based case for China's ratification of international human rights charters, showing that such a move would both enable a prosperous and peaceful China, and at the same time ensure the legitimacy of political power," David Bandurski, of the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, told DW. An alarmist, confrontational or overbearing tone, he added, would probably not serve this objective.

According to the China Media Project, the letter had been intended for publication in a leading newspaper. Authorities, however, stopped it from going to press on Thursday, February 28. Nonetheless, the letter was circulated in advance on social media websites.

Growing consternation

Demonstrators gather along a street near the headquarters of Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, January 7, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/James Pomfret)

Journalists of the Southern Weekly newspaper demanded press freedom in January

Calls for reform, especially in human rights and press freedom, have been growing louder in China. The beginning of the year saw an uprising of journalists calling for an "editorial revolution" in southern China's Guangdong province after the province's propaganda chief edited out and in part re-wrote parts of the Nanfang Zhuomo's, or "Southern Weekly," New Year's edition.

"Voices calling from human rights and press freedom are not necessarily to be taken as signs. They speak to a growing consciousness of rights in Chinese society, and a growing willingness among citizens to be involved and hold their leaders to account," Bandurski said.

Regardless of whether or not the letter will have an impact at the National People's Congress, according to Bandurski, it "is important in and of itself as a reflection of a growing determination on the part of citizens from a range of backgrounds to drive the debate in Chinese society."

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