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China: Analysis From Washington -- Human Rights With An Asterisk

Washington, 29 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The People's Republic of China this week became the 144th country to accede to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but like many countries which have done so, Beijing said would not observe some of the agreement's provisions.

Chinese Permanent Representative to the United Nations Wang Yingfan on 27 March formally notified the UN in New York that the Chinese government had ratified the covenant. But Wang said Beijing does not consider itself bound by the clause specifying that workers have the right to form independent trade unions.

Many governments around the world have praised China for adhering to the 1966 covenant. But human rights groups, led by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and the International Labor Organization expressed their disappointment that Beijing is not willing to recognize what most countries around the world now recognize as a fundamental right.

China's Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Sheng Guofang made it clear why China had ratified the covenant and also why it had refused to accept the provisions on free trade unions. He said that China's failure to do so in the past had been an obstacle to improving relations with many countries, including the United States.

But Sheng noted that "there is a little room for improvement in the human rights situation in every country," but he stressed Beijing is not prepared to allow independent trade unions to compete with the one national trade union organized and controlled by the Communist Party.

China's action is both encouraging and discouraging, but it is not unique. By signing the covenant, Beijing accepts a legal vocabulary that both its own citizens and foreign governments are likely to use to press it for more change, in just the same way that citizens of Soviet bloc countries used the words of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 to demand and eventually achieve better protection of their rights.

But by insisting that the Chinese government will not accept one part of the covenant even formally, the Beijing authorities again demonstrate that they are less interested in allowing their citizens to acquire more political and economic rights than they are in appearing to do so for purposes of mollifying foreign governments.

At the same time, the Chinese action is all too familiar. Since the covenant was signed, 39 countries have opted out of one or another of its provisions, refused to sign and ratify it, or signed and then ignored what the covenant requires.

The United States, for example, signed the accord in 1977, but the U.S. Congress has been unwilling to ratify it because of its provisions concerning employment and fair wages as entitlements, something many people in the United States do not accept as guaranteed rights but rather as matters of negotiation and contract.

But even those countries which have signed and ratified the accord without an asterisk have sometimes ignored its provisions. They have agreed to the covenant because major Western governments have indicated that it is important that they do so, but then they have acted however they want, confident that their adherence will be remembered and their violations largely ignored.

It remains to be seen whether China will fall into that category as well or whether its accession to most of the covenant will be used by other governments and its citizenry to demand that it live up not only to the parts of the agreement it has accepted but also to those it has not.

Beijing clearly understands that words do matter, otherwise much of its crackdown against opponents would make no sense. But the words of the covenant to which China has acceded may come to matter in ways that the regime there does not expect or want.