Five years ago a group of Chinese scholars, lawyers and writers issued an open letter calling for the country to take concrete steps to protect the rule of law and human rights. The specific mechanism they called for was the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Beijing signed in 1998 but has not formally ratified. The pact mandates respect for rights such as the freedom of religion, speech, legal due process and the right to self-determination.
More than 14,000 thousand Chinese eventually signed the open letter, hoping that the international attention surrounding the Beijing Olympics would force the ruling Communist Party to take some steps toward political reform and openness. That didn’t happen. While there were some nominal improvements — foreign media websites were unblocked and restrictions on journalists eased — there were no major political reforms. Later that year, a group of activists released Charter 08, an ambitious manifesto calling for broad changes including an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Its chief author, Liu Xiaobo, was arrested and sentenced to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, one of the few recipients to be recognized while incarcerated.
Last week another group of Chinese activists issued an open letter, again calling for the government to ratify the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Their appeal comes before the annual meeting of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), the Communist Party–controlled legislative conclave that has added significance this year as it will see the party’s boss Xi Jinping named President, completing the transition of power from Hu Jintao. The title is the least significant of Xi’s three chief offices, below General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, two roles he assumed in November. If Hu’s term is any indication, President is also the title Xi will most commonly be called in Western press coverage once he takes office.
The NPC could use a rectification of names. It is often called a rubber-stamp congress, a term that is disliked by many Chinese officials and scholars. They note that many delegates to the NPC have voted against budgets and work reports. The state-run Xinhua news service noted in a pithy tweet Sunday, “Song Xinfang said he had voted against a national budget bill during his term as deputy to China’s top legislature.” Of course, Congress is a bit of a misleading word too. For while some delegates have cast nays, they’ve never constituted a majority. As a correspondent for the Economist wrote last year, the NPC will shed the rubber stamp label “when it finally rejects something put before it.”
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Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, says that the NPC plays an important role in governing China, just not the role that it nominally holds. “We understand the NPC as a parliament and therefore see it as little more than a rubber stump,” Tsang told TIME in an interview. “That is not really what the NPC does as far as the party is concerned. As far as the party is concerned, it is an important part of the consultation process, particularly in the post-Mao and post-Deng era. Your not talking about the party running everything, and the party also feels it needs to secure its legitimacy and popular support.”
So why raise an issue like China’s ratification of the rights covenant before the NPC? “This is a perfect time to for us to make our appeal, when the NPC convenes its annual session,” says Wang Keqin, an investigative reporter and one of the open letter’s signatories. “After the new generation of leaders took office in last November, a new environment emerged and people have great expectations about the new generation of leaders. We hope they can promote the development of China’s human rights.”
Chinese officials have pointed out that it took the U.S. 15 years to eventually ratify the covenant. When asked at a press conference ahead of the NPC about the broader political reform, Fu Ying, a Vice Foreign Minister, told reporters it was unfair to question China’s efforts. But domestically there are rising questions about specific policies that many people feel infringe on basic rights. The system of re-education through labor, or laojiao, which allows police to administratively sentence offenders to up to four years without trial, usually for minor crimes such as theft, drug use and prostitution but occasionally for political activities as well, is now a target of heavy criticism and likely to be curtailed in the coming year.
Wang says he doesn’t have great expectations about the government acting on the open letter, but he says it’s worth taking the opportunity to promote ideas of human rights during the NPC. Wang was removed last week from his post at the Economic Observer, a Chinese financial newspaper, but says the decision was not related to the letter but rather unease with sensitive stories he reported last year, including the deadly Beijing floods. He says he is optimistic that the letter won’t provoke any backlash. “I do not worry about the future consequences,” he says. “Times have changed, so I don’t think what happened to Liu Xiaobo will happen to us.”
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing