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David Wertime

Bold Calls for China to Ratify U.N. Rights Convention, But Some Ask: Will It Matter?

An interior image of China’s Great Hall of the People, at which the upcoming plenary session of the National People’s Congress will meet. (Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday, a group of prominent Chinese citizens issued an open letter to China’s government calling on it to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While open letters are a venerated form of protest and speech, this group made waves when they chose to share their message on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter.

As the name suggests, the Covenant recognizes a variety of individual rights including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and a number of procedural rights. Seven nations have signed but not ratified the Covenant; one of those countries is China.

Now, 121 notable signatories have called on China to take the next step. The letter, a full translation of which is available here, notes the “awakening rights consciousness” in China and the “development of Chinese civil society” and urges China’s powerful State Council to submit a motion asking the National People’s Congress to ratify it at the congress’ upcoming meeting.

Activism in the digital age

The open letter sketches a revealing contrast between the strictures of traditional Chinese state media and the power of Weibo. “Inside sources” told China Media Project that the letter was only released online after censors caught wind of its planned appearance in a prominent Chinese newspaper and quashed it. Indeed, while publication in print media–or even a mainstream Chinese news site–can require layers of approval, online sharing is frictionless and immediate, its imprints almost impossible to obliterate. Enterprising reporters frustrated with censorship have been known to share their findings on Chinese social media, aware that once a sensational item enters the active Chinese blogosphere, the news gallops as fast as a horse leaving a barn.

That didn’t stop Chinese censors from standing at attention. A number of the letter’s signatories apparently posted the letter on their Weibo accounts, only to have it scrubbed. Lawyer Chen Youxi angrily wrote, “Some have sent Weibos asking for the [Communist Party] to ratify the international covenant; Sina screened these posts for no reason. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the Chinese government long ago promised to join the … Covenant but has not brought it up for ratification. This loses the trust of international society and, even more, China’s people. Don’t do this kind of face-losing thing again.” Another user wrote, “Weibo keeps [blocking] my retweets, I can’t take it, I can’t take it, [so] I’ll retweet some news from the grandfather [as opposed to grassroots] level, hopefully this is safe.” She then shared a link to a 2005 article in which Chinese authorities assured observers they were going to get the Covenant ratified “as soon as possible.”

Others who posted a direct link to their personal blog seem to have dodged the censors’ knives. Signatory He Weifang’s blog still features the letter, with comments appearing on the blog every few minutes.

Online support, but also pessimism

From comments on Mr. He’s blog as well as scattered discussions on Weibo, it is possible to glean a preliminary sense of Chinese Web users’ reaction to the bold move. Many wrote quick expressions of their “resolute,” “intense,” or “eternal” support.

Others, however, were more cynical. Although the “awakening rights consciousness” the letter describes is real–one netizen’s political manifesto went viral months ago–the phenomenon cuts both ways. As Chinese grow more aware of their legal rights, they also grow more aware of the ways in which those rights are not honored in practice. One commenter wrote, “I think our constitution and our laws aren’t bad, but they haven’t been well implemented.” Another put it less delicately: “Right now, everyone knows that respect for the constitution and protection of individual rights are a joke. ”

In an environment where laws are often observed in the breach, a number of users cautioned that “Ratifying and then not implementing it is worse than not ratifying it!” In fact, a ratified but ignored Covenant might only sting more. One user asked, “What can we do if it’s ratified and not enforced? It’s just like Chinese law, just a game with words on paper.”

One possible reason for the cynicism: Countries that have both signed and ratified the covenant are required periodically to report to the UN’s Human Rights Committee on their progress in implementing it. This may explain why one commenter wrote, “This covenant will shake the basic interests of the Party; it won’t be ratified.”

Good things take (a lot of) time

If China ever does ratify the Covenant, it will not have been the first to take its time in doing so. As one user correctly wrote, “Some countries took a rather long time between signing and ratification of the covenant, such as Germany (five years), the UK (eight years), Italy (eleven years), and Belgium and the U.S. (fifteen years).”

But after fifteen years of waiting, some have begun to suspect that Chinese authorities have no intent to ratify the Covenant, perhaps dangling its passage before the public simply because denying the Covenant’s legitimacy would be a hard sell. One user wearily described over a decade of half measures and false starts:

China already signed the covenant in 1998, but for a long time it was not submitted to the National People’s Congress for ratification. In January 2004, [president] Hu [Jintao] said China was actively looking into the covenant; in May 2005, [premiere] Wen [Jiaobao] stated while in Europe that China was committed to ratifying the convention as soon as possible; in September 2005, [high official] Luo Gan stated at the 22nd World Legal Congress that as soon as the provisions were mature, they would fulfill the relevant legal processes. On March 18th of 2008, Wen [Jiabao] stated at a press conference for foreign and domestic reporters that they were going to ratify the covenant as soon as possible.

It remains unclear whether the letter will be heeded, or what will happen to its signatories. At the very least, their collective activism has already taken on a Weibo twist. Five years ago, Nobel Peace laureate (and now Chinese prisoner) Liu Xiaobo was one of hundreds to sign Charter 08, a bold reformist manifesto whose mindshare among the Chinese populace was nonetheless limited. Now, such declarations remain risky, but are harder to erase–as one user commented, “Whoa, another signed [letter], [but] this time there’s Weibo, can it have more of an impact? I’ll try to re-tweet.”

The Weibo age also means that Web users can add their own humorous policy suggestions with greater alacrity. One suggested, “Have a few more drinks with the legislators and then you can get it passed…except big man Xi [Jinping, who has cracked down on ostentatious feasts and gifts by Party apparatchiks] won’t allow public drinking now. What can you do?”

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
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