Paper and practice
A signature on a piece of paper is not significant in itself. It is how faithfully the signatory follows the pledges set out in the document which makes a difference. The changes which must take place in China before the edicts of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are enshrined into the country's domestic life are extensive and profound.
Nevertheless, yesterday's signing at the UN headquarters in New York is a momentous event in the mainland's history, and another landmark in China's quest to become a respected and influential global power.
The world is now watching to see how sincere Beijing will be in implementing the edicts it has set its hand to.
It would be foolish to expect a complete re-appraisal of policies as fundamental as Taiwanese re-unification, or many of the lesser domestic changes, for example the declaration respecting the right to form independent trade unions at a time when the economy is under strain, engendering deep concern at the prospect of civil unrest.
The lengthy exercise to reform the legal system has years to go before it fits in with the requirements of the ICCPR. There have been, as yet, few signs that Beijing has implemented the changes designated by the covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights signed last October. It may be decades before it, or the latest covenant is ratified.
That should not prevent the spirit of the documents being observed. The United States waited until 1992 to ratify the ICCPR it signed in 1979, but its constitution guarantees citizens the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the remaining protocols of the UN covenant are, with one or two exceptions, enshrined in the American legal code.
Despite its exemplary constitution, the mainland in practice offers no such guarantees to its citizens. Now that it has signed the covenants, it is under an obligation to conform to international norms, speeding reforms which respect the right to freedom of thought and action, and allowing all people to follow their religious practices without political interference.
Hong Kong may prove an early testing ground for China's commitment to the covenant under Article 12: 'No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.' Beijing cannot now justify the nonsense of banning members of the Democratic Party from the mainland. It follows that this ban could be challenged within days. The response will clearly indicate whether the covenant is simply names on a paper, or a blueprint for a better life.