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China’s Charter 08

January 11, 2009

The New York Review of Books has published an English translation of an important emerging document calling for political and legal reform in China. The document is called Charter 08 (in analogy with Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 in 1977). It is a citizen-based appeal for the creation of a secure system of laws and rights in China, and has been signed by several thousand Chinese citizens. The Chinese state has belatedly taken note of the Charter, and a number of lead proponents for the document have been detained by the police, including Liu Xiaobo, Zhang Zuhua, Gao Yu, and Liu Di. Perry Link provided the translation.

The central principles articulated in the Charter include:

  • Freedom
  • Human rights
  • Equality
  • Republicanism
  • Democracy
  • Constitutional rule

The specific points included in the Charter include:

  1. A New Constitution
  2. Separation of Powers
  3. Legislative Democracy
  4. An Independent Judiciary
  5. Public Control of Public Servants
  6. Guarantee of Human Rights
  7. Election of Public Officials
  8. Rural-Urban Equality
  9. Freedom to Form Groups
  10. Freedom to Assemble
  11. Freedom of Expression
  12. Freedom of Religion
  13. Civic Education
  14. Protection of Private Property
  15. Financial and Tax Reform
  16. Social Security
  17. Protection of the Environment
  18. A Federated Republic
  19. Truth in Reconciliation

Perry Link makes the point that this is not a “dissident” document, but rather a public-spirited attempt to articulate a future for China’s polity.

The Chinese government should recognize that these are precisely the reforms that China needs for the twenty-first century. China needs to find its way to a genuinely law-based society; this is the point of items 1-7 and 14. China needs to rebuild a spirit of legitimacy joining government and the governed. And China needs to end the environment in which corruption, both private and public, is the most visible manifestation of unjust power that is visible to virtually all Chinese people.

Here is a very interesting audio interview with Perry Link on the NYRB website about the context of Charter 08. Also of interest is a piece that Daniel Drezner has posted on Charter 08 on the ForeignPolicy blog. Drezner’s view is that the goals of the Charter can only be realized through confrontation with a mass movement, not through consultation and negotiation. But there are other pathways through which a governing party has come to rethink the conditions of its grip on power in the past twenty years. Let’s hope the Chinese government has the wisdom to recognize the suitability of these principles for China’s future.

[January 22: see this very extensive and illuminating analysis of the Charter by Rebecca MacKinnon at Rconversation.]

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