Chinese Dissidents’ Manifesto Celebrated in the West, Ignored in China


Liu Xiaobo is now imprisoned at an uknown location for his involvement in the Charter ’08 document

On December 10, 2008, a group of 300 Chinese dissidents published an open letter (english translation) to the Chinese government  calling for wide political freedoms and basic human rights in their country. Although this document has become the vegetarian dinner party topic du jour among Western activists, it’s not at all clear whether it will have any impact in China. For one thing, the Chinese government has censored it, removing it from Baidu and Google and even individual blogs. The internet being the internet, people are reading and talking about it anyway, but this only matters if the Chinese populace in general is sympathetic to the notion of government reform and greater personal rights. They may not be.

The letter, known as Charter ’08, was released on December 10th, the 60th Anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The truly sad part is, you already know what happened next: those behind it were immediately detained, arrested, imprisoned. The text itself might be considered measured and scholarly in the West, but must be interpreted as incredibly harsh and insolent in the Chinese context, if no other reason than because it is direct criticism in a country where “inciting subversion of state power” is frequently invoked:

After experiencing a prolonged period of human rights disasters and a tortuous struggle and resistance, the awakening Chinese citizens are increasingly and more clearly recognizing that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance.

The ruling power monopolizes all the political, economic and social resources. It created a string of human rights catastrophes such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, June 4, and attacks on non-governmental religious activities and on the rights defense movement, causing tens of millions of deaths, and exacted a disastrous price on the people and the country.

The Charter names freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy and constitutionalism as “fundamental concepts,” and calls for the immediate provision of 19 different rights and reforms, including such standard (to a Westerner) concepts as election of public officials for all regions and freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and political affiliation. It also addresses more China-specific issues, such as “urban and rural equality” and “citizen education: abolish political education and examinations that are deeply ideological and serve one-party rule.”

The arrests last month made international news, although the actual text does not appear to have been widely available until The New York Review of Books published their English translation on January 15th, followed by a more graceful translation by the group Human Rights in China. Although new coverage has fallen off dramatically since then, a search on Technorati shows that the story has percolated quite steadily through the English-language blogosphere for the last month. This is exactly the sort of stuff that Western activists love — but what does it actually mean within China?

Apparently, despite the censorship attempts the document acquired an additional 5000 signatures within the first week, which is, on one hand, a stunning number of acts of sedition. On the other hand, there are over a billion people in China, and so far the government seems to be handily winning the information war. A full month after the letter, Uln Dice of Chinayouren wrote,

The fact is that Charter 08 is still an unknown movement in mainland China. Out of 5 local friends I asked, all with university degrees and fluent English, even today only one of them had heard the term (but knew no details). As for the majority of Chinese who live out of the cities and don’t use the internet, there is no way they can have heard about it.

Ultimately, there are too many factors at play here to tell what the effect of Charter 08 will be, if any. The best detailed analysis that I’ve seen is Rebecca MacKinnon’s piece on her blog. It’s in English, by a Westerner, but one who speaks Chinese and actually has frequent contact with Chinese citizens, and I must recommend it highly. There are many reasons why Charter ’08 might have little effect. One  key factor is perhaps the receptiveness of the population itself: if the document truly resonates with the populace, no amount of censorship can stop it. But as I have written  previously, it’s a mistake to assume that the average Chinese person actually feels any need for Western value imports such as freedom or democracy; the rural poor are more concerned with getting their fair share quick, and the emerging middle class are happy with the status quo, reaping the benefits of China’s growing economy. Further, Chinese culture is firmly rooted in the Confucian “father knows best” ethic and the corresponding reliance on an all-knowing emperor, which can make the notion of “government by the people” sound like anarchy. The authors of Charter ’08 — no fools — are aware of the need for a cultural shift, writing:

The only fundamental way out for China: citizens should become the true masters of the nation, by throwing off the consciousness of reliance on a wise ruler or honest and upright official.

One thought on “Chinese Dissidents’ Manifesto Celebrated in the West, Ignored in China”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.