China’s Charter 08 – a civic call worth noticing

25. Jan 2009

Cecilia Milwertz Senior researcher NIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies


On 9 December 2008, the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration og Human Rights, a group of 303 citizens of the Peoples Republic of China including writers, intellectuals, lawyers, journalists, retired party officials, workers, farmers and businessmen issued Charter 08 / ???? calling for major changes of the Chinese political system. The Charter presents nineteen proposals on constitutional reform, judicial independence, freedom of expression and human rights protection. By January 2009 thousands had signed the document.

Signers detained – Liu Xiaobo arrested Several of the signers, including among others writer Wen Kejian, Hangzhou, Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and physicist Jiang Qisheng as well as journalist Gao Wu, writer Liu Di and rights lawyer Teng Biao have been detained and questioned by the police The literary critic Liu Xiaobo was arrested on 8 December. A map created by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, shows known Charter 08-related detentions.

Inspired by Charter 77 Charter 08 is inspired by Charter 77 issued by citizens in Czechoslovakia in January 1977 among others Václav Havel, who later became the President of Czechoslovakia. Charter 77 was printed in a West German newspaper and circulated in Czechoslovakia by an informal association of citizens who criticized the government for failing to implement human rights provisions of a number of documents it had signed. The document described the signatories as a

‘free, informal open community of people of different conviction, different faiths, and different professions united by their will to strive, individually and collectively for the respect of civic and human rights in our country and throughout the world.’

Objectives – what does Charter 08 ask for? Signers of Charter 08 are asking their government for the right to question government policies. They are asking for protection of human rights, independent judiciary and freedom of expression.

Signers of Charter state that they

‘dare to put civic spirit into practice by announcing Charter 08. We hope that our fellow citizens who feel a similar sense of crisis, responsibility, and mission, whether they are inside the government or not, and regardless of their social status, will set aside small differences to embrace the broad goals of this citizens’ movement. Together we can work for major changes in Chinese society and for the rapid establishment of a free, democratic, and constitutional country. We can bring to reality the goals and ideals that our people have incessantly been seeking for more than a hundred years, and can bring a brilliant new chapter to Chinese civilization.’

(all quotes in this blog are from the English version translated by Perry Link)

Avoiding violent conflict Charter 08 is a call to avoid the escalation of crisis and violence. As Ian Buruma notes in his Project Syndicate article

‘There is nothing incendiary about Charter 08, no call for violent rebellion, no thirst for revenge or retribution.’

On the contrary, the document warns that as

‘…conflicts and crises grow ever more intense, and as the ruling elite continues with impunity to crush and to strip away the rights of citizens to freedom, to property, and to the pursuit of happiness, we see the powerless in our society-the vulnerable groups, the people who have been suppressed and monitored, who have suffered cruelty and even torture, and who have had no adequate avenues for their protests, no courts to hear their pleas-becoming more militant and raising the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions. The decline of the current system has reached the point where change is no longer optional.’

Some international reactions More than 300 internationally known authors have signed a petition in support of Liu Xiaobo.

The EU has expressed concern over Charter 08 arrests and has urged Chinese authorities to provide ‘prompt information’ on the ‘conditions under which Mr Liu is being held and the reasons for his arrest.’

Václav Havel, in a statement in support of Charter 08 and Liu Xiaobo, reminds us that

‘China is not Czechoslovakia in 1977. In many ways, China today is freer and more open country than my own country of 30 years ago. And yet, the response of Chinese authorities to Charter 08 in many ways parallels the Czechoslovak government’s response to Charter 77. Rather than respond to an offer of engagement with dialogue and debate, the Czechoslovak government instead chose repression. It arrested the signatories, interrogated and harassed others and spread disinformation about our movement and its aims.’

See Wikipedia Charter 08 for a comprehensive overview of comments and reactions.

Will the outcome of Charter 08 be as dramatic as that of Charter 77? As Rebecca MacKinnon notes in her blog, it is too soon to tell.