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Tuesday, October 6, 1998 Published at 03:31 GMT 04:31 UK


World: Analysis

China: human rights and wrongs

China has moved on since the suppression of the Tiananmen protests

China has signed the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But is it really serious about improving human rights - or just its international image? Our Asia analyst, Alice Donald, reports:

Beijing's decision to sign the covenant shows how far the Chinese leadership has moved since the suppression of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests almost a decade ago.

The authorities have begun to loosen the shackles which once choked off all political debate.

There have been important symbolic moments: President Clinton speaking live to the Chinese people on television, the unprecedented visit by UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson to Beijing - and now the signing of an international covenant which guarantees a wide range of political freedoms.

Foreign governments attach huge importance to this long-awaited step.

The promise of a signature persuaded Washington to drop its annual motion criticising China's human rights record at the UN.

Conveniently, the move came just hours before the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, landed in Beijing, and will no doubt be lauded as evidence of tangible progress.

China's critics, though, say simply signing the covenant is not enough.

Even if the Chinese parliament does ratify the covenant - a process which could take years - Beijing may attach formal reservations, effectively nullifying some of its provisions, including Article 19 which guarantees freedom of expression.

Beijing insists that the need to provide food and political stability for its burgeoning population overrides concerns about individual liberties.

Guarantees of the right to self-determination are also unlikely to be tolerated for Tibet. Tseten Samdup, London-based spokesman for the Dalai Lama, says Beijing must be held to account:

"By signing the covenant I think we must welcome it, but there must consistent monitoring of the situation in Tibet so that China does not negate its obligations ... there's no point signing a covenant just for public relations."

Whatever Beijing's motives, the covenant will provide a set of standards bywhich to assess progress on human rights.

Beijing's signature will also mean that it cannot dismiss all criticism as outside interference as it has routinely done in the past.

But human rights advocates say the signature will be worthless if it blunts international criticism without yielding concrete results.

They point out that in the weeks since Mary Robinson's visit to China, yet more dissidents have been detained or told to keep quiet.



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