Almost twenty years after the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sent tanks into Tiananmen Square, a national Chinese human rights movement has taken shape again in the form of a statement called Charter 08. Released by a small group of Chinese intellectuals, lawyers, and dissidents on the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights last December, Charter 08 calls for greater freedoms, guarantees of basic human rights for the Chinese people, and an end to autocratic rule. Over 8,100 Chinese citizens, including students, businesspeople, and former party officials, have now signed the document, bravely adding their names, addresses, and occupations to the electronic petition despite the risk of government persecution. The document continues to circulate online throughout China, where 253 million internet users reside.
Whether the Charter 08 campaign — the longest sustained democracy and human rights campaign since Tiananmen — will catalyze a larger movement in China is unclear, but human rights activists and China watchers continue to track its progress, eager to find out how far the Party will let the effort go. Chinese authorities have already detained Liu Xiaobo, a famous literary critic, dissenter, and one of the authors of the document, and placed other suspected authors under surveillance.
In a way, though, Charter 08 has already made its point. Questioning many assumptions about governance in China and directly challenging the legitimacy of the country’s one-party rule, the statement asserts that “the time is arriving everywhere for citizens to be masters of states. For China, the path that leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the authoritarian notion of reliance on an ‘enlightened overlord’ or an ‘honest official’ and to turn instead toward a system of liberties, democracy, and the rule of law, and toward fostering the consciousness of modern citizens who see rights as fundamental and participation as a duty.”
What is significant is that the call to determine one’s own destiny comes from and is supported by the Chinese people themselves and contradicts the government’s dual claims that it governs on behalf of the people and that cultural factors preclude it from implementing a “Western-style” democracy. Moreover, Charter 08 undermines the CCP’s appeal to a “democracy with Chinese characteristics” — which is in fact no democracy at all. The Chinese leadership uses the term “democracy” liberally to mean elections on the local levels and more consultation within the party and, at times, even with the people before major decisions. But “democracy with Chinese characteristics” still rules out provincial and national elections, as well as any direct say from the Chinese people over policymaking.
The petition also bears witness to the universality of liberal democracy and human rights. It affirms freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy, and constitutional rule as “universal values” and calls for a new constitution, separation of powers, legislative democracy, and an independent judiciary. Notably, many of the recommendations for which Charter 08 advocates –- freedom to form groups, freedom to assemble, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion -– are items covered under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which China has signed.
Perhaps most striking about Charter 08, however, is that it makes the practical case for change. The document notes that China’s current course is unsustainable, that “the stultifying results” of authoritarian rule and the government’s refusal to implement a national human rights action plan are “endemic official corruption, an undermining of the rule of law, weak human rights, decay in public ethics, crony capitalism, growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor, pillage of the natural environment as well as of the human and historical environments, and the exacerbation of a long list of social conflicts, especially, in recent times, a sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people.” Though Charter 08 makes a clear case for democracy and change in governance, neither of which is likely in the near-term, it calls for neither revolution nor subversion, leaving the practical steps to the Chinese people. On social development, Charter 08 requests many of the items that the government itself has noted as necessary for China’s development: accountable systems of public finance; the establishment of fair and adequate social security systems, including basic access to education, health care, pensions, and employment; protection of the environment; and promotion of free and fair markets. Such items are achievable and would shore up support for the Chinese regime, which is growing increasingly worried about its legitimacy, especially as economic growth, the basis for the CCP’s legitimacy, slows.
Human rights movements indigenous to China, such as Charter 08, should be recognized and supported by the rest of the world. Ultimately of course, change in China must come from the Chinese, but the election of President Obama, who has vowed to end torture, respect human rights, and rehabilitate America’s image in the world, offers the United States a chance to play a constructive role promoting human rights in China.
As an important first step, the United States can use this moment to signal its support for human rights and for democracy in China. Next week, China will undergo its Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council. In the near term, the United States should support the process and reaffirm the tenets of the UDHR and the ICCPR, which echo many of the objectives that Charter 08 endeavors to achieve. Further down the line, the United States should seek elected seat on the Council with the aim of utilizing the UNHRC to globalize pressure on China. A number of other multilateral approaches are available to policymakers who wish to improve human rights in China, including addressing labor standards through WTO and ILO agreements. William Schulz’s new report for the Center for American Progress, “Strategic Persistence: How the United States Can Help Improve Human Rights in China,” provides a thorough list of ideas available to policymakers to advance human rights in China.
More specific to Charter 08, the United States can help to protect the authors and signatories of the petition by joining the many voices calling for the release of political prisoners like Liu and keeping a spotlight on China’s arbitrary arrests, particularly as they relate to the petition. Another option is to provide financial and information support to those seeking to breach China’s firewall, which currently blocks access to Charter 08 in China.
The question of whether China will “embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system” will only be answered with time. But for now, the Charter 08 represents the dissatisfaction with the status quo and the willingness of the Chinese people to stand up to oppression with the tenacity of an ox.