More than 120 influential scholars, lawyers and journalists have signed a petition urging the National People's Congress to ratify an international human rights treaty, as part of the leadership's pledge to promote constitutional rights and the rule of law.
The petition, addressed to the NPC Standing Committee ahead of the NPC's annual session beginning next week, calls for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to be ratified "as soon as possible".
"There is still a substantial gap between the situation in China with respect to human rights and rule of law and the requirements of international human rights treaties … but now is the best time for our country to ratify the treaty," the letter said.
Signatories include scholars Qin Hui, Yu Jianrong and He Weifang , liberal Communist Party veterans He Fang and Feng Lanrui, and rights lawyers Pu Zhiqiang and Xu Zhiyong .
They said they feared a society that did not value human rights or individual freedoms would plunge into "hatred and violence, division and hostility" if crises erupted.
The ICCPR is part of the International Bill of Human Rights. China signed the ICCPR in 1998 but has not ratified it.
The covenant commits its parties to respecting civil and political rights, including freedom of speech, religion and assembly and rights to a fair trial.
Professor Li Gongming , a Guangzhou-based commentator who signed the petition, said it was in the spirit of a recent push for rule of law and constitutional government by Communist Party chief Xi Jinping.
"In light of the leadership stressing that the country should be governed under the constitution and with the rule of law, I think ratification is a reasonable step," Li said.
The petition is part of increasingly bold calls from intellectuals for political openness and government transparency. In December, dozens of scholars and lawyers urged the party's new leaders to push ahead with political reform. Even more called on officials to disclose their family assets.
The petition said human rights were not just Western imports, but were ideals that the party itself had aspired to since its early days. The Chinese constitution says citizens enjoy freedom of the press, speech, assembly and association, and the right to demonstrate.
Professor Zhang Ming , a political scientist at Renmin University and a signatory, said he was sceptical about whether the new leadership would be willing to implement the necessary changes to conform to the treaty's requirements. "The 'stability maintenance' regime has not ended, but then you can't not call for ratification to happen."
Xu Youyu, a retired professor at the China Academy of Social Sciences who is also a signatory, said: "It's a matter of whether those in power genuinely want to safeguard human rights or not. If you want to, then you should ratify as soon as possible."
Many copies of the open letter posted on mainland websites have been deleted.