An open letter — signed by more than 100 prominent Chinese scholars, economists, journalists and former Communist Party officials — has issued an unprecedented call for political reforms, days ahead of a crucial Parliament meeting.

The letter calls on the new CPC leadership, set to take up the top positions in the government following the week-long meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) which opens here on March 5, to ratify international human rights treaties “in order to further promote and establish the principles of human rights and Constitutionalism in China”.

The statement is among the boldest calls yet from Chinese intellectuals to push political reforms, an issue that is expected to come up at the NPC session which will see General Secretary Xi Jinping take over from Hu Jintao as President.

Among the authors were legal scholar He Weifang; economist Mao Yushi; lawyers and rights advocates Pu Zhiqiang and Xu Zhiyong; and China’s most well-known investigative journalist Wang Keqin.The letter was published by the Hong Kong-based China Media Project after it was circulating on some Chinese social media websites.

The authors had initially planned to publish the letter later this week, before the March 5 opening, in a prominent newspaper. After authorities had apparently sought to prevent its publishing, the contents were released online.

Issues faced by media

Mr. Wang, one of the authors and a bold journalist who has exposed numerous scandals, in a recent interview with The Hindu, described the increasing difficulties faced by media outlets in China and the need for reforms.

“In the past dozen years, this [2012] is the coldest year for investigative journalism in China,” he told The Hindu, speaking in his modest office in northwest Beijing.

Mr. Wang receives hundreds of letters every week — from aggrieved citizens; from petitioners harassed by their local governments; and from dispossessed farmers having no recourse to justice. He said it had become harder for journalists to report on sensitive issues last year, which saw the party embark on a once-in-a-decade leadership change.

“I feel embarrassed and helpless at the letters,” Mr. Wang said. “But we should work hard to change the situation. If we don’t work hard, we can’t change the situation and we don’t even have the possibility to change the situation.”

Political reforms

The authors of the call for reforms hope that the new leadership will push political reforms — starting with taking forward long-discussed measures to curtail the party’s power by elevating the authority of the Constitution and the courts — as they assume full control following the NPC, which will see outgoing President Mr. Hu; Premier Wen Jiabao; and other top leaders step down from all their positions.

Titled ‘A Citizen Proposition’ and addressed to the NPC’s Standing Committee, the letter argues that ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights would better enshrine the human rights guaranteed under the 1954 Constitution.

“While [China] afterwards suffered many turns and setbacks, and paid a steep price on the issues of constitutionalism and human rights protection, the great goal of [establishing] human rights has already become a core agenda inseparable from the project of [national] transition in which we are presently engaged,” the letter said. Doing so, it added, would also “demonstrate China’s commitment to be a responsible world power”.

Countering recent arguments from conservative voices in the party who have blamed “hostile foreign forces” for using the human rights issue as a way to destabilise the country, the letter said: “China’s government played an important role in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. International human rights standards are therefore not imported products but in fact include the achievements of Chinese culture and the Chinese people.”

Rule of law

The letter also highlighted China’s progress in building a society governed by the rule of law, particularly in the three decades since the economic reform and opening up.

“The expansion of civil rights and the elevation of the political status of citizens has also, objectively speaking, created favourable conditions for the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” it argued, saying it would be a constructive step toward renewing. . . safeguarding the life and authority of the Constitution.”

The authors also quoted a recent speech by new leader Mr. Xi marking the current Constitution’s 30th anniversary, in which he said “the authority of the Constitution is in its actualisation”.

“For citizens and the government”, it concluded, “for our nation and peoples, the establishment of a nation of human rights, of a China in which Constitutionalism is in force, this is the only true and fundamental measure of the gloriousness of our achievements and of our dreams. If, owing to time considerations, this task cannot be completed this year, we ask that you please be open and considerate, offering the people of our country an explanation and at the same time providing an explicit timetable so that they understand and trust in their government’s good faith.”

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