For all its headline-grabbing potential, the annual joust between the United States and China at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva has become somewhat ritualised over the years. The US issues a damning report on multifarious abuses still routinely carried out on the mainland, and Beijing counters with a catalogue of criticism centred on serious flaws in the American system, accusing Washington of double standards. As in past years, so this week. But with one crucial difference - namely Beijing's commitment to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), possibly by April. President Jiang Zemin gave that assurance to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan when they met in January. Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner, is in the capital pressing for a series of reforms, particularly an end to 're-education through labour'. Activists in the West say that of the two UN covenants, the ICESCR is milder and less liberating than the one guaranteeing civil and political rights. That is the document adopted in Article 39 of the SAR's Basic Law, and now the subject of heated debate here. They have a point. Nevertheless, the ICESCR lays down basic standards of health care, education and the alleviation of poverty. These are goals the central Government often says it sees as primary human rights. Provided it is sincere, and not promising ratification as a political bargaining chip, or as a ploy to deflect attention from graver violations, much can be achieved. It will hasten the process of bringing domestic law into line with international standards. Citizens with grievances about health hazards, or lack of schooling, can take action against the authorities. However, as Human Rights in China outlines in a report to be published in full next week, reforms are no use if they are merely symbolic. The Criminal Procedure Law introduced four years ago has not been put into practice. Yet basic human rights, such as giving detainees access to a lawyer are easily instituted and will contribute to social stability. Better still, progress on these fronts will stop political grandstanding by the US - which, as Beijing always emphasises, has yet to ratify the ICESCR for its own domestic reasons. What matters, however, is how the Chinese themselves view their lot. There are many ways the leadership can improve their lives without upheaval, provided the political will is present. This is largely a balanced report, despite Beijing's objections. It acknowledges efforts to make the judicial process accountable. Most citizens go about their lives without significant government interference it says, with increased access to sources of information, more room for individual choice, greater diversity in cultural life, and better living standards. But the same is not said of political dissidents, or the adherents of many religions, notably the official Catholic church, the Muslim Uygurs and Tibetan Buddhists. The report finds increased persecution, including detention for the peaceful expression of views, as well as torture and solitary confinement, plus serious infringements of the rights of Falun Gong members. There is no freedom of speech, the press remains under government control, and both the Government and the Communist Party frequently interfere in the judicial process. In comparison, the separate Hong Kong report reflects the success of 'one country, two systems'. It notes that 7,000 demonstrations have taken place since 1997, with only five being refused police permission. However, understandable concern is expressed about the independence of the Judiciary. Excessive force by police armed with pepper spray against students involved in a right of abode demonstration is criticised. It also reports that Falun Gong practitioners remain active (though under pressure), but notes that Chinese officials urged the Catholic church to tone down its celebration for the canonisation of 120 foreign missionaries, and that its contacts with the mainland's official church are on hold because of the restrictive climate for religious groups over the border. The South China Morning Post itself features in an item on press freedom. 'Many saw the departure of former China editor Willy Wo-Lap Lam as an example of self-censorship . . . Lam resigned rather than accept a change in responsibilities, and claimed the . . . management had begun to 'tone down' his column.' At the time, a management statement announced that organisational changes were designed to give 'a broader, wider range of coverage of China'. Editor Robert Keatley stressed he had tried to persuade Lam to remain as columnist, and self-censorship played no part in the move. But the report stresses that RTHK - in spite of criticism from pro-Beijing figures - continues to report on Taiwan and other contentious issues. Most damning is the reference to the SAR as a transit point for human smuggling. These are people who were willing to risk their lives in an attempt to build a better future in the West. The best way the rest of the world can help prevent incidents such as this is to help the current process of economic, social and political modernisation of China so that emigrating will no longer seem such an attractive option.