Last spring, while their government concerned itself with the Olympics, a small group of Chinese dissidents drafted an imprudently truthful document about the political realities behind the official narrative of modernisation and liberalisation. Charter 08 – which alludes to Czechoslovakia’s historic Charter 77 – was launched on the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and signed by 300 prominent citizens. In the weeks of censorship and repression that have followed 7,000 others have added their signatures. More than 100 of the original signatories have been called in for questioning by local police, and websites and chatrooms – with the highly questionable complicity of major Western companies — have been purged of all references to the document. But Beijing’s bureaucrats are learning with increasing dismay that their efforts to muzzle this latest instance of “disharmony” may well turn out to be too little too late.

Twenty years ago pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square could be stamped out with complete impunity, but the dissidents learned their lesson and have been sharpening their public relations skills. Nowadays, the state’s small army of censors and spies might as well be using cannon to kill mosquitoes. With the ungovernable proliferation of email and Internet-based communication – an estimated 300 million Chinese are now online − whatever happens in China can no longer be forced to stay there. Once an electronic document like the charter has been launched into the ether, no amount of authoritarian bullying can put the genie back into the bottle.

Its opening paragraph establishes the Charter’s intellectual reach and ambitions: “A hundred years have passed since the writing of China’s first constitution [and other attempts to establish a framework of laws and rights, but] the Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who 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.” It isn’t difficult to see why the authorities were so unnerved, but the elaboration of the remedy turns out to be even more frightening than the diagnosis.

Imagine the uneasiness of an apparatchik in Beijing who happens across these lines: “Authoritarianism is in general decline throughout the world; in China, too, the era of emperors and overlords is on the way out. The time is arriving everywhere for citizens to be masters of states… 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.”  The damnable freethinking that might result from such rearrangements is then fleshed out in 19 propositions that any self-respecting overlord would burn immediately after reading. Number 3 argues that all legislators should be chosen by direct election; 5 suggests that the “military should be made answerable to the national government, not to a political party, and should be made more professional”; 10 calls for freedom of assembly and 11 states, rousingly, that “We should make freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and academic freedom universal, thereby guaranteeing that citizens can be informed and can exercise their right of political supervision… We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.”

Perhaps the most provocative idea of all, given China’s hypersensitivity to questions territorial, appears in proposition 18, which says that “in Hong Kong and Macao, [China] should support the freedoms that already exist. With respect to Taiwan, we should declare our commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy and then, negotiating as equals and ready to compromise, seek a formula for peaceful unification.” Recognising this and “truth in reconciliation” as the Ultima Thule of their demands, the chartists then close with a stirring denunciation of the status quo: “Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby not only constricting China’s own development but also limiting the progress of all of human civilization. This must change, truly it must. The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.”

In his inaugural speech, President Obama warned “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” that they were “on the wrong side of history; but that [the United States] will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” These are fine words and there is no doubt that Obama entered office eager to live up to them. But the democratization of China will require something more tangible than rhetorical gestures or promises of “smart power.” China’s dissidents know that and yet they have risked everything to lay the foundations for genuine political reforms in the country most likely to dominate the century ahead. Their courage must not go unanswered.

The brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests was greeted with appropriate outrage and disbelief all over the world, but the West quickly learned to look the other way on China’s human rights record – distracted, no doubt, by the inexorable progress of its mammoth economy. Twenty years later, if the international community chooses to watch quietly as another group of aspiring democrats is intimidated, censored and imprisoned, its silence will be nothing less than complicity.
[ Editor’s note: An English translation of Charter 08 can be found at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22210]

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