Charter 08: Decade of the Citizen

Grandstands are rising around Washington, DC. The U.S. is preparing for the Inauguration of a new President whose campaign mobilized a record number of citizens and focused on themes of hope and change.

Half way around the globe in the world’s most populous country, a relatively small group of citizens are proposing radical change for their nation, change which reflects in large part the ideals upon which the United States was founded. However, the proponents of this change have been interrogated and arrested.

On December 10, the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 300 leading mainland Chinese citizens—writers, economists, political scientists, retired party officials, former newspaper editors, members of the legal profession and human rights defenders–issued Charter 08. Charter 08 sets out a vision for a democratic China based on the citizen not the party, with a government founded on human rights, democracy, and rule of law. Charter 08 doesn’t offer reform of the current political system so much as an end to features like one-party rule. Since its release, more than 5000 citizens across China have added their names to Charter 08.

Before the document was even published, the Chinese authorities detained two of the leading authors Liu Xiaobo and Zhang Zuhua and have since interrogated dozens of others who signed. Most have been released though they continue to be watched. However, Liu Xiaobo, a major writer and former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, remains in custody with no word of his whereabouts and fears that he will be charged with “serious crimes against the basic principles of the Republic.” The Chinese government has also blocked or deleted websites and blogs that carry Charter 08.

Charter 08 was inspired by a similar action during the height of the Soviet Union when writers and intellectuals in Czechoslovakia issued Charter 77 in January, 1977. Charter 77 called for protection of basic civil and political rights by the state. Among the signatories was Vaclav Havel, who was imprisoned for his involvement but went on to become the President of the Czech Republic after the Soviet Union ended.

Citizens around the globe, including Vaclav Havel, Nobel laureates, human rights defenders, writers, economists, lawyers, academics, have rallied in support of those who signed Charter 08. The European Union has expressed grave concern at the arrest of Liu Xiaobo and others. Petitions in support of Charter 08 and in protest over the detention of Liu Xiaobo are circulating around the world.

The arrest of Liu Xiaobo happened on the eve of Human Rights Day and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The year 2008 is also the 110th Anniversary of China’s Wuxu Political Reform, the 100th Anniversary of China’s first Constitution and the 10th Anniversary of China’s signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the soon-to-be 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown against students.

Charter ’08 is well worth reading. It sets out the political history of China in its forward, then proposes fundamental principles–freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy and constitutional law—upon which the government should be based. The document advocates specific steps–a new constitution, separation of powers, legislative democracy, independent judiciary, public control of public servants, guarantee of human rights, election of public officials, rural-urban equality, freedom to form groups, freedom to assemble, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, civic education, protection of private property, finance and tax reform, social security, protection of the environment, a federated republic, truth and reconciliation.

Charter 08 lays forth an ambitious agenda, one that would revolutionize the political climate and governing structures of China, but it advocates for change not through violence, but through citizen participation. Is this naive? Foolhardy? Or is this vision for China one that will inspire and empower its citizenry?

“We dare to put civic spirit into practice by announcing Charter 08,” declare the signatories. “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 and constitutional country.”

As citizens in the U.S. prepare to inaugurate a new President, the first African American President, the country is not so much realizing change as realizing in its electoral process the ideals set forth over 200 years ago.

Ideas may be repressed for a time and their authors may be persecuted, but ideas and words matter. Eventually they are the fuel for the engine of change. Those who have the courage to set them down and publish them may turn out to be the founding fathers on whose shoulders generations will stand.