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China: Revolution or Reform?

A Summary of the Charter 08 Dispute

New America Media, News Analysis, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Jan 07, 2009

Editor's Note: The Chinese government's reaction to "Charter 08," a manifesto calling for sweeping political changes in the country, was harsh, even leading to the arrest of its drafter and threats to its supporters. Whatever its merits, it has stimulated a robust debate, writes NAM contributor Xujun Eberlein.

Last month, there was a heated debate among Chinese bloggers and commentators outside of China, centered around "Charter 08," a democracy manifesto originally signed by over 300 Chinese citizens and published on the Internet December 10.

Times Online said that it "has been signed by more than 7,000 prominent citizens," but the number is difficult to verify. Two versions of the English translation of this manifesto can be found online, one at nybooks.com (by professor Perry Link), and the other at Human Rights in China.

While the former is widely linked and reprinted, the latter is a more accurate translation of the original in Chinese. A detailed recounting of the birth of the Charter can be found on Fools Mountain.

Now that the hubbub around "Charter 08" has largely died down, it might be a good time to reflect on the reactions it provoked, and make a few observations.

The official reaction from the Chinese government was both harsh and overdone. Liu Xiaobo, a primary drafter and signatory of the Charter, was arrested in Beijing two days before its publication. No explanation was given by the government. Twenty-three days later, Liu was allowed to see his wife on New Years Day, but police still did not reveal why he was detained. Many other signatories were summoned and threatened, according to a post on Fools Mountain.

Any discussion of "Charter 08" likely has been banned in China; a Google search using the Chinese keywords turned up no mainland links on the subject.

On Dec. 11, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement that "we are particularly concerned about the well being of Liu Xiaobo, a prominent dissident writer, who remains in the custody of authorities."
According to Time Magazine, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told journalists on Dec. 16 that the United States position was another example of the unwelcome "interference of other nations in China's internal affairs."

Curiously, major U.S. media outlets, CNN including, have been unusually quiet, despite the fact that the Charter is hailed as a major breakthrough by its supporters. Time Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor were pretty much alone in reporting on the Charter, with the latter commenting in a somewhat upbeat tone that "the Communist Party's hesitancy to crack down harshly on the scholars, lawyers, engineers, and others who issued the so-called 'Charter 08' document sends a subtle signal of hope."

More curious, and changing, reactions, came from Falun Gong (FLG), a religious and political group that has been banned in mainland China. A recent search on the FLG website came up with 100 links cheering "Charter 08," with such titles as, "Reform Is Dead, Long Live Revolution!" However a click on any of those links gave only a blank page. Remnants of posts here and there indicate that the FLG originally found "Charter 08" an exciting sign of the coming revolution and supported it whole-heartedly. Later, though, the FLG leader deemed the manifesto not revolutionary enough, but rather a "ghost shadow" of the Communist Party.

Revolution, however, is favored by few Chinese, whether supporters or opponents of "Charter 08." In contrast, many pointed out the legitimacy of "Charter 08" in accordance with China's constitution.

Among the well-known signatories, dissident writer and Beijing journalist Dai Qing calls the Charter a mild appeal. "If the government can't even accept such a mild appeal, I think the government is too frail," she says in an interview with "Voice of Germany." A scholar of Western philosophy, Xu Youyu says the Charter is totally constitutional, and his signing was a citizen's "rational and responsible decision."

Bao Tong, a high-ranking official imprisoned after the June 4th movement in 1989 and still under house-arrest, angrily inquired of the government "What crime has Charter 08 committed?"

On nearly every website in the United States that discusses "Charter 08," in English or in Chinese, there are not only voices advocating and opposing, but some offering constructive criticism, and others giving moral support (plus the usual white noises and meaningless vituperates). The issues that are at the center of the argument include whether the ideas are too "western," or whether the proposed democracy model would suit China; whether the proposal for a "Federal Republic of China" makes sense; whether the wording in the foreword is needlessly inflammatory; whether Taiwan's democracy is a good model for the mainland.

There are also a few one-of-a-kind remarks worth noting:
-- A blogger on DWNews.com is unhappy that the signatories include a well-known advocate for Tibet independence. He says he is against the Charter because it supports the Dalai Lama's wish for a "Republic of Greater Tibet." (On a related note, on December 12, the Daila Lama issued a statement saying, I am greatly encouraged by the launching of Charter 08.")

Taiwan News published an editorial on Dec. 25 praising "Charter 08," but also criticized it as "unable to transcend 'great Chinese nationalism.'"

A religious blogger claims that she does not support the Charter because it doesn't address how to reform the Chinese people's faith.

An expat blog in China, Chinayouren blog, which was the first to note the inconsistency between the original Charter in Chinese and Prof. Link's translation of it, published a post December 26 titled, "Charter 08 and political change in China." It assesses positively the Charter's significance and provides several constructive criticisms. The author points out: "A document of this kind should try to seek the maximum consensus in mainland China. This is, in my understanding, the main weakness of the Charter 08."

The post ends with: " Most importantly, from a theoretical point of view, figures like Mao or KMT should have no place in a Charter that wants to unite the Chinese. The recent history of China is an amazing tale of cruel failures and unequaled successes, events that need to be openly discussed at some point, certainly, and compensation given to the victims. But direct accusations are altogether at a different level and unworthy of sharing the same document with the generous ideals stated in the Charter. These things do not only weaken the Charter 08 from a practical point of view, but also reduce its soundness as a Universal Statement."

Whatever its merits, if nothing else, "Charter 08" has stimulated a great discussion on China's future direction.

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