Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08

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Forbes: Helen H. Wang

Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded for Nobel Peace Prize. Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book The Chinese Dream that provides readers context for what Liu Xiaobo advocates and why he is imprisoned. I hope the Nobel Peace Prize will help Liu Xiaobo regain freedom soon.

On December 10, 2008, on the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 303 courageous Chinese citizens signed a petition known as “Charter 08,” a manifesto for democracy.

The charter members pointed out that “China has many laws but no rule of law; it has a constitution but no constitutional government.” They called for political reform and laid out nineteen recommendations that included overhauling the constitution so that “the constitution must be the highest law in the land, beyond violation by any individual, group, or political party”; separation of legislative, judicial, and executive powers; and systematically implementing general elections of public officials. Charter 08 essentially calls for ending one-party rule.

The Chinese government reacted quickly and nervously to censor the charter. Liu Xiaobo, a well-known dissident who was the lead signatory, was detained even before the petition was released. Liu was later sentenced 11 years in prison for “inciting the subversion of state power.” Other signatories were summoned or interrogated by police. The document was deleted from the Internet behind China’s great firewall.

The New York Review of Books published a complete translation of Charter 08 by Perry Link here. However, many people I talked to said they had never heard about Charter 08. In the past, Chinese Internet-savvy Web surfers were able to get around the firewall without much difficulty to find out the truth if they wanted to. But this time, very few people in China even paid attention.

On December 18, 2008, Hu Jintao delivered a speech that is seen as a response to Charter 08’s call for political reform. Hu Jintao acknowledged that without democracy, the modernization of China could not be achieved. However, he also made it clear that China would never copy the mode of Western political institutions.

In March 2009, Wu Banguo, the chairman of China’s National People’s Congress, issued a tough statement, saying that China would never adopt a system of “multiple parties holding office in rotation, or hold elections without government-chosen candidates on the ballot.” Mr. Wu added, “Without a single Communist Party in control, a nation as large as China would be torn by strife and be incapable of accomplishing anything.”

The year 2009 saw regression in the move towards democracy. The government disbarred fifty-three lawyers who were actively involved in civil rights and corruption cases. The office of a prominent lawyers’ group, known as Gong Meng, or Open Constitution Initiative, was shut down by the authorities. Its thirty-six-year-old founder, Xu Zhiyong, who has taken on high-profile cases such as the tainted milk scandal, was detained on the charge of tax violation. Some people believe that the real reason for shutting down Gong Meng is Mr. Xu’s activism on civil rights.

In an article by an outspoken magazine in China, the editor wrote in subtle language as such: “Fifteen years ago when China was at a crossroads, a powerful figure led China on the road to a market economy. He left an important political will: ‘Adhere to the Party’s basic line unswervingly for 100 years’…Fifteen years later, China has reached a point where the original mode of development seems to have reached its limit. The tide of history, like the eastern-flowing Yangtze River, seems to flow in circles. However, it is believed that all the rivers will eventually flow into the sea.”

Any Chinese can read between the lines as follows: “a powerful figure” refers to Deng Xiao Ping, and “original mode of development” refers to one-party rule that “seems to have reached its limit.” The passage implies that the trend of democracy is like the Yangtze River flowing east that is unstoppable and will eventually join the ocean. It conveys the message for democratic reform without actually saying it literally. The obscure language is intentional. In case the magazine is censored by the government, it cannot be accused of violating any censorship rules.

The tide of history may be flowing in circles. However, it is believed that all the rivers will eventually flow east into the sea. As one of the eight thousand ordinary Chinese who signed Charter 08 was quoted as saying, “I was afraid, but I had already signed it hundreds of times in my heart.”

(This article is adapted from The Chinese Dream).

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2 thoughts on “Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08

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