“Charter 08” follows the path laid down by “Charter 77”, a manifesto signed by Czech and Slovak intellectuals and activists, who in 1977 called on the government of Czechoslovakia to respect human rights.
Writer and playwright Václav Havel, who went on to become president of the Czech Republic after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Empire, was one of the signatories.
In the case of ‘Charter 08’ many signatories are Chinese academics but many others are ordinary people, from the business world to rural communities. Their goal is not to create a political party but rather to start a movement of cultural transformation to radically change China.
The manifesto’s its publication has however already create fear and has led to arrests.
One signatory, Liu Xiaobo (pictured), an intellectual, was taken into police custody on 8 December. Another, Zhang Zuhua, was interrogated for 12 hours and then released. Yesterday scientist Jiang Qisheng and Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang were questioned by police. Mr Pu is also closely followed and his movement are restricted by the police.
A corrupt system and social tensions
The manifesto is divided into three parts. The first one is a foreword which goes over the last 100 years of Chinese history, from the time when the country’s first constitution was written to our time when many Chinese “see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind, and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.”
For the Charter’s signatories the Chinese government's approach to “modernization” has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse.”
They therefore ask: “Where is China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it continue with ‘modernization’ under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system?”
The document does highlight positive changes that have occurred in the last 20 years like relief from poverty and an end to Maoist totalitarianism. For instance in “1998 the Chinese government signed two important international human rights conventions; in 2004 it amended its constitution to include the phrase ‘respect and protect human rights’; and this year, 2008, it has promised to promote a ‘national human rights action plan’. Unfortunately most of this political progress has extended no further than the paper on which it is written.”
Results have been “stultifying” with “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.” Hence chances that “conflicts and crises” will grow are ever greater. “The decline of the current system has reached the point where change is no longer optional.”
Universal human values
The second part of the manifesto addresses the fundamental principles that have inspired it and which should be adopted by the state, above all the principle of “freedom.”
“Freedom,” it says, “is at the core of universal human values. [. . .] Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.”
Significantly, by focusing on the universal nature of freedom, the manifesto dismisses the authorities’ relativist arguments suggesting that freedom and human rights in China are different from those in the West.
Instead, “[h]uman rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people.”
Other principles are equality, a republican form of government, democracy “of the people, by the people, and for the people” as well as a constitution that protects “the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power”.
Freedom of religion and federalism
The third part of the document is titled “What We Advocate” and lists the steps that should be taken to transform China into a non-authoritarian nation that protects human rights and guarantees social development.
In it the signatories make some “recommendations” to the Chinese government, such as drafting a new constitution in which the executive, legislative and judiciary branches are separate and every office is elected.
In their view the country’s fundamental law must guarantee a justice system that is independent of the Communist Party and allow for public control over all offices and the armed forces. At present, judges openly acknowledge that they must rule in favour of the party, to which even the armed forces are beholden.
By the same token, freedom of form groups, freedom of expression and freedom of religion should be upheld.
To this effect the document calls for the “separation of religion and state” for “[t]here must be no governmental interference in peaceful religious activities. We should abolish any laws, regulations, or local rules that limit or suppress the religious freedom of citizens. We should abolish the current system that requires religious groups (and their places of worship) to get official approval in advance”.
The current system, which discriminates against unregistered, hence unlawful, groups, ought to be replaced with “a system in which registry is optional and, for those who choose to register, automatic.”
The manifesto also goes onto to make suggestions about desirable social changes like reducing the urban-rural gap, a simplified tax system that eliminates inequities, a guaranteed social safety net (education, health case, retirement and workplace), the promotion of private property, and guarantees to farmers title to their land.
Furthermore, it also calls for a democratic China that is federal in nature to ensure peaceful coexistence of its various ethnic and religious groups (like Tibet) and the integration of Taiwan, Macao and Hong Kong.
Lastly the signatories want people to be reconciled with the truth by restoring “the reputations of all people [. . .] who suffered political stigma” or were “labeled as criminals because of their thought, speech, or faith.”
For this reason they call on the state to free all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience and to set up a Truth Investigation Commission “charged with finding the facts about past injustices and atrocities, determining responsibility for them, upholding justice, and, on these bases, seeking social reconciliation.”
The document ends urging China to democratise its system of government in order to help build world peace, calling on the Chinese to join this movement to bring about concrete changes to Chinese society.