“THE Chinese dream is the Chinese people’s dream of human rights.” That was not uttered by one of China’s beleaguered dissidents, who are now suffering the most intense crackdown on human-rights activists that the country has waged in many years. They were, in fact, the words of a foreign ministry official, in a speech this month marking the 50th anniversary of the UN’s adoption of two covenants on the protection of a wide range of political, cultural and other freedoms. As a signatory to the documents, China has little choice but to parrot their language, even though it often shows little regard for what the covenants mean.
China signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in the late 1990s in an effort to improve its image abroad, which was badly tarnished by the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. The government has embraced neither document with enthusiasm, but in 2001 its rubber-stamp legislature ratified the more palatable of them, the ICESCR. It has yet to take that step with the meatier ICCPR. In November a court in the southern province of Guangdong sentenced an activist, Sun Desheng, to two-and-a-half years in prison for the crime of touring the country holding up banners calling for ratification of the ICCPR, and circulating photographs of them on the internet. It also jailed another dissident, Guo Feixiong, for six years, partly for organising the banner campaign.