Barely two weeks after the publication of the Chrter 08, it has already become old news, lost in the indifference of Western media (with notable exceptions), and erased in China by the cold intervention of the censors. I want to examine here the importance of this document and give some more thought to it and its possible impact.
There is one line in Chrter 08 which concentrates in my understanding the essence of the document:
“Human 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.”
This principle, inspired in the long tradition of the Enlightment and the famous 18th century Declarations, is at the heart of the matter. Should these rights apply to China, or are they just an interference of foreign ideas in Chinese affairs? This mostly unspoken debate that rages today in China is putting in doubt the universality of Human Rights, and questioning it in view of the singularities of the Chinese culture.
Of course, this line of argument does not resist the minimum intellectual scrutiny, but it’s marketable to avid patriots. One doesn’t need to put many brain cells in contact to see that the entire ideology of Maoism -or today’s wild capitalism for that matter- are also based on foreign ideas. And that great Ideas, like print and paper, cure to cancer or Human Rights, belong to Humanity.
One of the most influential political thinkers of the Enlightment, who inspired the precursors of this Charter, wrote 3 centuries ago:
“I am a man before being French. For I am necessarily a man, but French only by accident.”
This Charter is up to now the boldest effort in mainland China to speak out for the Universality of Human Rights. Its influence, directly or indirectly, will no doubt be decisive at the time when these questions will have to be seriously debated by the Chinese government. Whether this happens in turbulent 2009 or many years later, China will be in debt with those 303 brave men who dared to stand up for their ideas.
Reflections on the Chrter 08
Before I write these reflections, I want to state my respect for all the authors and supporters of the Charter in China. My points below are not rejecting their fundamental principles, and they should be understood as constructive critic.
1. The fact of publishing the Charter and obtaining a few thousand signatures in the Mainland is in itself the most important action for Human Rights ever done in China, and it represents a qualitative leap from previous actions which were: 1- Purely reactive, 2- Mostly isolated, 3- Strongly supported by Western actors. This is a serious challenge to the Chinese government, and a very dangerous one for the signers, as it is well known how China reacts to coordinated efforts of this kind.
2. One important difference from past actions is the positive nature of the movement. The Charter is not merely a reaction or complaint; it is a statement that stands in its own right. Note, however, one important difference between the line quoted above and those in the classic American and French Declarations: this one is formulated in the negative, “Human Rights are not bestowed by a State”. There is still an important element of reaction which will have consequences on the future of the Charter.
3. 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 Chrter 08. Going into particular details, such as proposing federalism for Taiwan, or putting in question sacred figures like Deng Xiaoping (by mentioning Tiananmen*) is not working to achieve maximum consensus. Neither is aggressively criticizing Mao’s legacy while failing to recognize the important successes of the present regime. These points can be easily utilized by detractors to turn public opinion against the Charter.
4. 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 Chrter 08 from a practical point of view, but also reduce its soundness as a Universal Statement.
Will Chrter 08 fly into 09
I have written it before in this blog, and I am convinced of this: China has an intelligent government. For each propaganda muncher crying traitor at Liu Xiaobo, there is one thoughtful official that reads the Charter and understands the challenges that his country is facing. The government of China is as skillful to control internal issues as it is unable to control the external image of the country, and it has done an impressive job this time at downplaying and silencing the Charter. The lesson of 1989 is well learnt.
The sad consequence of this is that today the vast majority of the Chinese population has no idea of the existence of the Chrter 08. And I am not only speaking of the masses of peasants. A quick survey among my personal Shanghai friends, all of them with university education and speakers of at least one foreign language, gave discouraging results: Not a single one of them had even heard the term “lingbaxianzhang” (Chrter 08) one week after its publication.
It is unlikely that this Charter -or any other Charter for that matter- will in itself spark political change. Its direct impact is limited, and it has probably already run all it had to run. It is not Charters, but Leaders that start revolutions. And when they do, they look back to the works of the intellectuals to give a meaning to their actions. Inevitably, the time will come for political change in China, and Chrter 08 can be the precursor and the basis for future debate.
However, for these changes to happen peacefully they should first reach the largest possible consensus, not only among the intellectuals, but among the people of China. This includes millions of honest middle aged Chinese who still regard Mao as a respectable leader, and who understand that it is him and his followers, with all their faults, that led China from misery and humiliation to the present prosperity.
These people are not criminals or radicals, nor did they consciously cause any suffering to others during Mao’s terrible years. They are simple, honest Chinese who lived the time they had to live working quietly for their country. Brainwashed or not, these are today the good people of China. And when the intellectuals draft and sign a charter they should always bear in mind that it is for them that they are fighting.
History shows that there are two ways to change the system in China: the violent revolution way (Mao) and the peaceful consensus way (Deng). I believe that this second way is the one that most Chinese desire for their country, and China has proven in the past that it is capable of taking it successfully.
However, to move the massive inertia of the CPC requires some level of distress, like the one existing prior to 1978. Whether the impact of the crisis in 2009 will be enough to lead to this situation and whether the leaders in China will be willing or brave enough to push the changes, remains to be seen. But 2009 might very well bring the first real opportunity in many years, and this well timed Chrter 08 might still have its word to say in the coming months.
Conclusion and note to censors
I am living in China, where I have always been treated with patience and generosity by the Chinese people. For this I have learnt to love and admire this country. I know my obligations as a guest, and with my work, my life and my writing I try my best to return all that China has given to me.
Therefore, I state here my respect to Chinese of all ideologies. Dear censor, I would much appreciate it if you can continue to afford me the privilege of living in your country, not only physically, but also through my little voice on the internet. Please, do not block my blog.
Finally, my best wishes to Liu Xiaobo and his family in these difficult moments. Lu Xiaobo is the main drafter of the Chrter 08 and at this moment he is still detained by the police. He should be released immediately.
I want to show him all my support here, and give my tiny contribution by spreading his work below.
These are the noble principles that 303 brave men published in China in 2008:
Freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.
Human rights. Human 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. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.
Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person—regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief—are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.
Republicanism. Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among different branches of government and competing interests should be served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of “fairness in all under heaven.” It allows different interest groups and social assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.
Democracy. The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of major official posts in government at all levels are determined through periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for achieving government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Constitutional rule. Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.
*For the mention of Tiananmen incidents and discussion on discrepancies in the Charter, see my previous post here.