By Mark O'Neill
ON THE WEB, 7 January 2009
Although the Chinese government has reacted severely against the framers of the so-called Charter 08, the most serious intellectual challenge to the Communist Party since the student-led protests of 1989, there is little likelihood that they can snuff out the challenge even though President Hu Jintao has taken personal charge of the campaign.
On 10 December, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, more than 300 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists published Charter 08, calling for an independent legal system, freedom of association and the end of one-party rule. It is a detailed and carefully drafted document, released at a time when Beijing’s leaders are increasingly worried about threats to stability — the 30 years of prosperity that have led to an unprecedented rise in living standards appear to becoming to a close as the world economy turns down and as protests arise across the country.
The Charter 08 signatories are some of China’s most prominent establishment intellectuals, who have previously not been involved in protest or political activism. They say they intend to continue to publicize it and push for its adoption all the way through October (important because etc).
The date is significant because 2009 is the year of all anniversaries — 20 years after the 1989 student protests that led to the massacre in Tiananmen Square, 50 years after the Tibetan uprising led by the Dalai Lama, 60 years after the creation of Communist China and 90 years after student demonstrations on 4 May 1919 in anger against the government’s weakness at the Treaty of Versailles.
At nearly midnight on 8 November, two teams of a dozen police burst into the homes of two of the main authors, Liu Xiaobo and Zhang Zuhua, detaining them and seizing computers, mobile telephones, books, letters and other materials. They remained in Liu’s home until midday on 9 November. Liu, 53, a veteran dissident who has been arrested frequently and spent more than three years in a labour camp, has since been held on suspicion of ‘plotting to overthrow the state’, a charge that could result in a long prison term.
The Ministry of Propaganda (MOP) has enforced a strict ban on any mention of the charter or interviews with the signatories in the domestic media and held briefings for print and television editors, to explain the importance of the ban and the threat which Charter 08 poses.
The principal text at these briefings is Document 24, a speech given by Hu Jintao at a Communist Party Plenum from 9-12 October 2008 in Beijing.
“The propaganda departments of the party must act clearly and with a strong sense of reason,” Hu said. “Stability is the over-riding duty. Without stability, we will be able to achieve nothing and will lose all that we have already achieved. Opposing westernisation and separatism is the party’s political line and the thinking we must pursue over the long term.”
Ministry officials argued that, with the onset of the global financial crisis last summer, China is going through a crisis due to slowing growth, rising unemployment and social unrest. Recent examples are strikes by cab drivers and teachers in major cities, riots in Longnan, Gansu that left 60 officials injured, demonstrations by workers in Beijing and a rising number of petitioners.
The authors of Charter 08 picked their moment with great care. It was in 1908 that the young Guanxu emperor and a group of reformers presented a series of reforms to the Empress Dowager Cixi, who then controlled China. They included a change from absolute to constitutional monarchy and democracy and the abolition of official sinecures. After 100 days, Cixi ordered the arrest of the emperor and the execution of six of the reform leaders.
Except for 1949, all of the anniversary dates that occur in 2009 have in common the protest of ordinary people against the failure, corruption and brutality of their government. While those in 1989 were spontaneous, initially disorganized and expressed a variety of causes, Charter 08 was written with care and well argued. Its model is the Charter 77 that started as a petition by Czechoslovak intellectuals in 1977 and grew into a social movement that played an important part in overthrowing Communism and building the society that followed.
“All kinds of social conflicts have built up and feelings of discontent intensified,” reads Charter 08. “The current system has become backward to the point that change cannot be avoided. China remains the only large world power to still retain an authoritarian system that infringes on human rights. The situation must change. Political democratic reforms cannot be delayed any longer,” it said.
“After experiencing a long period of human rights disasters and a tortuous struggle and resistance, Chinese citizens are increasingly recognizing that freedom, equality and human rights are universal common values and that democracy, a republic and constitutionalism are the basic framework of modern governance.”
One of the demands that most infuriates Hu and his colleagues is the charter’s call for a federal republic to replace the highly centralized state that has existed under the Communists.
“China’s future is a federal state,” said Yan Jiaqi, an adviser to Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s and one of the leading intellectuals to support the student movement. After the crackdown, he fled to the United States, where he lives in exile.
“This proposal for a federal system will be welcomed by the people of Taiwan, the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet. It is the way to achieve democracy and peaceful unification,” Yan said.
The authors of the charter argue that the authoritarian system allows few channels for people to express their grievances, leaving violence and street protest as the only alternative.
A petition by 56 overseas Chinese in support of the charter said that, while the reforms of the last 30 years had brought greater freedom and remarkable economic gains, the authoritarian political system, monopoly of the news and control of the legal system had made it impossible for groups in society to express their views.
“There is lack of supervision of power, allowing corruption to flourish, the wealth gap to widen, moral values to decay and the environment to be destroyed. With such injustice, social conflicts worsen and violence is frequent. We worry for the future of the Chinese race,” it said.
The government wants to nip this protest in the bud and prevent it gathering support among the wider society — intellectuals, students, workers and the middle class. Many expect 2009 to be a year of turbulence. The authors of Charter 08 have given those who need it a blueprint for protest.