As China prepares to swear in a new generation of leaders at an annual parliamentary meeting in March, a group of prominent activists has called for political reform and adherence to the rule of law in the world's most populous nation.
The letter, signed by more than 100 scholars, lawyers, journalists and rights activists, calls on Beijing to ratify the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in October 1998.
"Among our myriad priorities, human rights is paramount," the letter said.
"The goal is human rights, and political power must serve human rights, because human rights are where its legitimacy comes from," it said.
It called on the new leadership headed by president-in-waiting Xi Jinping to live up to the regime's pledges and behave "in a manner consistent with a major power."
"We must join the treaty without hesitation, with a positive and decisive attitude," said the letter.
The covenant binds those countries that ratify it to guaranteeing freedom of speech, assembly and association to their citizens, as well as protecting citizens against forced labor, arbitrary detention.
The right to leave and return to one's country at will is also protected by the covenant, as is equality before the law and the right to due legal process.
The letter carried more than 120 signatures, including that of Beijing University professor He Weifang, economist Mao Yushi, rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and investigative journalist Wang Keqin.
He Weifang said in an interview on Wednesday that the failure to ratify the treaty had placed a serious obstacle in the way of China's progress.
But he said he was unsure whether the treaty would be ratified at the forthcoming parliamentary session.
"More than 10 years have gone by and we still have no ratification or legislation," He said. "This is unreasonable and abnormal."
Beacon of hope
Mao said that the signing of the covenant had been seen as a beacon of hope for many, as China had appeared not to recognize the concept of human rights at all until then.
"If it is ratified, it will have the effect of letting people know that there is such a U.N. covenant, and people will pay attention, and perhaps even implement it," he said.
"One step at a time," Mao added. "There are a lot of human rights issues in China right now."
Pu Zhiqiang said he and fellow activists had hoped for more action on human rights since the signing of the covenant.
"After they signed it, they should have started to legislate to bring domestic laws in line with the requirements of the covenant, and to bring about the conditions that would make it effective," Pu said.
"But we have been extremely disappointed with the reality of China during the 15 years since the covenant was signed," he said.
Yunnan-based activist Dong Rubin, whose name appears on the list of signatories, said he believed that ratifying and implementing the treaty would ease current conflicts between the Chinese people and the ruling Communist Party.
"The conflicts and clashes we are seeing now are getting more and more serious, and they are all precisely linked to these clauses on human rights," Dong said.
"We think this is a good time [to bring this up] because firstly we have a new leadership, and they may want to make some changes, and secondly, this is the first time they will be collectively present at the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference," he said.
"So we are calling on them at these parliamentary sessions," Dong said. "Our aim is clear, and the time is right."
The Hong Kong University's China Media Project said the letter had originally been intended for publication in a major Chinese newspaper on Thursday.
"Authorities, however, learned of the letter by late Monday and the authors had no choice but to release it to the public today," according to the project's blog.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.