Charter 08 Lives?

This topic seems to have see-sawed in and out of the news. This piece in today’s WaPo indicates it may not be dead in the water after all.

When Tang Xiaozhao first saw a copy of the pro-democracy petition in her e-mail inbox, she silently acknowledged she agreed with everything in it but didn’t want to get involved. Tang, a pigtailed, 30-something cosmetology major, had never considered herself the activist type. Like many other Chinese citizens, she kept a blog where she wrote about current events and her life, but she wasn’t political.

A few days later, however, Tang surprised herself. She logged on to her computer and signed the document by sending her full name, location and occupation to a special e-mail address. “I was afraid, but I had already signed it hundreds of times in my heart,” Tang said in an interview.

Hers is the 3,943rd signature on the list that has swelled to more than 8,100 from across China. Although their numbers are still small, those signing the document, and the broad spectrum from which they come, have made the human rights manifesto, known as Charter 08, a significant marker in the demands for democracy in China, one of the few sustained campaigns since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Those who sign the charter risk arrest and punishment.

When the document first appeared online in mid-December, its impact was limited. Many of the original signers were lawyers, writers and other intellectuals who had long been known for their pro-democracy stance. The Chinese government moved quickly to censor the charter — putting those suspected of having written it under surveillance, interrogating those who had signed, and deleting any mention of it from the Internet behind its great firewall.

Then something unusual happened. Ordinary people such as Tang with no history of challenging the government began to circulate the document and declare themselves supporters. The list now includes scholars, journalists, computer technicians, businessmen, teachers and students whose names had not been associated with such movements before, as well as some on the lower rungs of China’s social hierarchy — factory and construction workers and farmers.

That bolded section is the money quote. Thus far, fenqing commenters like HongXing and Math have derided the petition using the same technique as American nutters — i.e., claiming it’s a product of “elitists,” of brainiacs who are far from the common people. This separation, they insist, will inevitably cause the issue to fade out. I admit, I thought they were at least partly right, that the initiative would fade away, if only because it quickly fell out of the news.

Now it seems to be creeping back. I think we all know how social issues can take on steam in China once they strike the right chord. It’s way too soon to say if that can still happen with Charter 08, but a few stories like this in media that Chinese people read have the potential for a firestorm. (A few days ago Bei Da thought it was enough of an issue that they forbade students from signing the document, which could also backfire.)

Tang Xiaozhao became famous a few weeks ago when her blog posts on Charter 08 were deleted as fast as she could open new blogs. But not before the posts made a difference.

Before her blog was shut down entirely Jan. 13, the comments section was filled by online friends who said they had signed Charter 08. Tang counted 17 so far.

“I also signed,” one person wrote. “I cried when I knew Xiaozhao had cried. I wasn’t moved to tears by her tears, but I cried out of frustration and helplessness.” Another saw hope in the censorship: “They wouldn’t have been deleting posts in such a crazy manner,” he wrote, referring to Chinese authorities, ” if they were not scared.” A third person said he “prepared my clothes right after signing my name. I am ready. I don’t want to go to jail, but I am not afraid of going to jail.”

And two days ago Time magazine printed an interview with Bao Tong, “a top aide and speechwriter for the secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1980s” who now “lives under virtual house arrest, his every move observed, every visitor screened by a handful of guards, every conversation presumably monitored.” He was a key architect of Charter 08 and is not going at all gentle into that good night.

Chinese officials have said that now, when the country is straining under the growing pressures of the global downturn and spending billions to help create jobs, is the worst time to call for democratization. Bao argues that economic challenges need to be met with political adaptations as well. “Because we have an economic crisis, we need to bring the people together,” he says. “We can’t take every difference and dissatisfaction and let it intensify. Human rights, democracy, republicanism — these help eliminate conflicts, not intensify conflicts.” For now the country’s leadership is content to let Bao and China’s other democracy advocates stew in anonymity, and hope that once again the Party can grow its way out of trouble.

So China has once again succeeded in creating a martyr, someone the international media can use as a hook for more stories on Charter 08. Not a great strategy.

Finally, ESWN has contributed to this week’s wave of Charter 08 buzz with a spirited new post, part of which I must take issue with. He makes comparisons of the spirit of demonstrators in 1989 with that of the Charter 08 movement today, and says a crucial difference is the Chinese people today have more knowledge of what democracy is and what it brings, thanks to the Internet.

When CNNIC started to count in 1997, there were 630,000 Internet users in all of China. By the end of 2008, the number was almost 300 million (or about 19% of the entire population of China). What might people learn from the Internet, especially about this thing known as democracy? They can easily find out what happened during the presidency of the democratically elected President George W. Bush of the United States of America from 2000 to 2008. These events are known, circulated and discussed in China. Here they are:

He then goes on to list the handling of Hurricane Katrina, Abu Ghraib, the deaths and maiming of Iraqi children and other Bush atrocities. But aren’t people smart enough to know they can’t point solely to what Bush did in his eight catastrophic years and then say, “Look – look at what democracy holds in store for you”? Bush was an aberration. Can we look at this period and say it’s representative of Western democracy? If so, democracy is an unbridled failure, a disaster, a blight.

Roland’s point may be that since it was during the Bush years that Internet usage in China soared, this was all that many of their citizens have seen of Western democracy, and thus may think twice before risking their necks to argue for its adoption in China. But if this were so — if Chinese people see democracy as a disaster because they watched Bush ruin the world on the Internet — then there’d be no Charter 08 and Tang Xiaozhao would be ignored.

I can’t say I see many Chinese people here itching for democracy. But most seem to understand that Bush was an anomaly, and that Americans had the power and the freedom to end the Republican regime and choose their own leaders. I like this quote from a New Yorker article (via ESWN, perhaps ironically):

Chinese young people are not naïve about America and they often make pointed criticisms. But we are fortunate that at least one stratum of Chinese youth seems hungry to restore the American image to what many Americans want it to be. As a Chinese student told the three researchers not long ago, “When I was little, I heard adults talking about the American dream – - money, power, freedom, and fairy-tale life…All this seemed to shape an unreachable fairy tale in my little heart.”

So yes, I would say Chinese people don’t only think of torture, attack dogs and incompetency when they think of America. (God knows, every single one of them I know, without exception, wants to go there, and most refer to America’s “open society” with some envy.) The image of democracy has not been permanently tarnished by Bush.

For the record: I am not a proponent of overnight democracy in China. Maybe Western-style democracy will never be right for China. Democracy is full of crippling flaws and at this point China may be better served with a different system. But I am in favor of reform, including no taxation without representation and a legal system that can bring corrupt exploiters to justice. That’s the least the Chinese people deserve, and you don’t need full-blown Western democracy to provide them.

So Charter 08 has gone from a nearly forgotten whisper to a more piercing if not deafening scream. Will it become a roar? I was skeptical before, but now I’d say it’s not impossible. I also understand that 8,000 signatures in China is less than a tiny drop in a huge bucket. But the story now has the potential to resonate. We’ll just have to wait and see.

This post was a bit stream-of-consciousness, as I was looking at a lot of material. Thanks for your patience as I sorted it out for myself.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 23 Comments

Good post, Richard, even if I don’t entirely agree.

We should still be skeptical about the reach of Charter 08 and its ability to influence and/or reflect mass sentiment. To gauge the reach of the Charter in a present-day context (i.e. not 1989-centric), perhaps the best parallel we can draw is with the anti-CNN people and the nearly simultaneous anti-France protests last year.

Far more than 8,100 Chinese endorsed the boycotts, the hearsay messages, and the nationalist ranting associated with those movements. Where are they today? Both the participants and media observers of the anti-CNN and anti-France trends declared their importance at the time, while the more cynical among us felt them a short-time exercise in anger. The Charter has yet to make a similar impact, but even the impact of these two movements, which once seemed large, has diminished remarkably in a few short months.

We’ll just have to see if the limited embrace of the Charter can break out of being just a fad and become something tangible. A more likely scenario than the Charter succeeding at this point is the emergence of a New Left reform movement that aims to make China less capitalist and more authoritarian, to address the ills outlined in the Charter without taking the cure endorsed by the signatories. That said, there’s a truth revealed in the comments you quoted: every time the government takes action against the Charter they just raise its profile. Funny, being self-styled Communists, the powers-that-be should realize this fact

As for Roland, well, he’s still writing like he sleeps under a photo of Lee Kwan-yew at night. Some things never change.

January 29, 2009 @ 5:02 pm | Comment

Thanks Matthew. As I say, it’s a tiny drop in a huge bucket – 8,000 signatures is nothing. But it seems to be gathering momentum and sure got an upsurge in coverage in the past week.

Despite our various disagreements, I have huge respect for Roland, but what I quoted jumped out at me and I had to disagree,

January 29, 2009 @ 5:08 pm | Comment

Why are people STILL talking about charter 08? It’s obviously just somebody trolling the internet. Stop feeding the trolls.

January 29, 2009 @ 5:12 pm | Comment

Falen, it’s received quite a surge in coverage. You can mainly thank the masterminds who decided to put Bao Tong under house arrest. They made news, and like sharks to blood the media will follow. Same happened with Hu JIa.

January 29, 2009 @ 5:16 pm | Comment

I must say, its quite polemic what Roland Song say there. And a stupid polemic too. If he would have looked one day further than the 8 years he could have noticed that there is another president now. And a quite different one might add.
But anyway, Americas democratic history is a bit longer than eight years. And it did quite well. Other democracies too. Chinese people understand that quite well, I think.
Its just plain stupid to judge the thing called democracy based on the last 8 years as much as it is stupid to judge the thing called the Chinese miracle based on the last 8 years. Period.

January 29, 2009 @ 5:50 pm | Comment

Must keep things in perspective…

Something something in China gained some insignificant number of “online signatures” over the period of 2 months, including some unknown and inconsequential “intellectuals.” Happens to have the D word on it so it makes the round in the news. Every has heard about it by now. Most people has the same “meh” reaction like me and don’t even bother to read it(TL;DR). Somebody not important was thrown in jail and quite frankly nobody really much cares, much like that dude who started China Democracy Party.

There’s just a string of such vainglorious individuals pop up every now and then, and of course life goes on… This Charter 08 is like every single of those china democracy dramas proceeding it, what makes you think this one will be “the one”? If anything, this historys has set my attention span shorter and shorter for these kind of events.

January 29, 2009 @ 7:18 pm | Comment

Falen, I am willing to accept your premise that there is nothing to this story, but not yet. And I never, ever said Charter 08 was “the one,” and have been skeptical about it. I declared it dead in the water weeks ago. So please, use facts instead of putting words in the mouths of others.

What I am saying above is that I see increased media attention, and the potential – repeat, potential – for greater awareness. So far, there’s no support to speak of, but considering the caliber and fame of many who signed, and the fact that it’s spreading outside the circles of academia and the intelligentsia, it is definitely newsworthy. The ham-handed censoring of the blogs and the house arrest of Bao guarantee the story’s interest to the media.

January 29, 2009 @ 7:29 pm | Comment

Briefly on Roland. I enjoy reading ESWN when I have the time, but I have always wondered what his political “orientation” was. Not pro-CCP or authoritarian, but somehow not pro-democracy either. Maybe pro-PAP/Singapore/HK functional constituencies.

Anyway, there is a rejoinder to what he wrote. Yes, Bush Junior was elected to office. But without democracy he would still be in office (or get to choose his successor). Bad leaders can be selected, but the electorate gets a chance to replace them with someone better. Does Roland think that if America was not a democracy it would have had nothing but Reagans and the like?

Perhaps he wasn’t passing comment on that, but I would give the Chinese people credit to understand that democracy is about correcting wrongs as much as being able to make the right decisions in the first place. Look at what Obama did with G. Bay almost immediately after entering office. I think Roland should give them credit too to understand.

Small point to Matthew, no one gets in trouble for being anti-France in China – it takes no conviction or courage to rail against foreigners. On the other hand anyone who signs Charter 08 can face serious punishment, so every single person who signs it should be congratulated for doing what they think is right being full aware of what might happen. The signatories are worth 100 of the anti-CNN brigade. You also need to remember that it’s more difficult for people to show their support for the Charter simply because of official acts of intervention in disrupting online discussion. For every person who is able to sign, others doubtlessly would if they could – doesn’t mean they haven’t read the document or heard about its points and agreed.

To be honest, could we all say if we were in the same position that we would have signed such a document? I know we would like to think that we would, but I don’t think we can safely say that we wouldn’t have read it, nodded and then pressed “delete” just to be safe.

January 30, 2009 @ 12:55 am | Comment

Well said, Raj. This time I agree with you!

January 30, 2009 @ 1:22 am | Comment

Martyrs aren’t made by signing petitions or making blog posts or even living under house arrest. They are made by the spilling of blood. So far the Communist Party hasn’t even felt threatened by the chartists. Notify me when one of the chartists ends up shot for the crime of counter-revolution and we will see the true depth of conviction.

January 30, 2009 @ 6:21 am | Comment

Jing that’s simply false, at least in the colloquial sense of the word martyr. You can be martyred by being arrested, blacklisted or even fired from your job (though not everyone in each of those situations is a martyr). Good examples are Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, or Hu Jia. Whether you think either of them is worthy of martyrdom is irrelevant; their situation, their suffering created a groundswell of sympathy and support for them and against those who inflicted it on them. That’s what martyrdom means in popular usage.

January 30, 2009 @ 9:21 am | Comment

Ian Buruma on Charter 08, in the world’s largest daily today:

January 30, 2009 @ 10:08 am | Comment

I have an observation from South China I’d like to throw out. Most of the individuals I meet and converse with who have been raised along the Pearl River Delta are very informed about the west. Nearly anyone who speaks Cantonese watches Hong Kong television almost as much as they watch programmes from the mainland. While many migrant worker’s in the area are uninformed, and consequently hold some extremely strange beliefs and fears regarding America in particular, many of the people native to the region (illegally or legally) hold travel passes to HK and Macau and regularly interact with people from all over the world. I was out with friends one night during the middle of the anti-CNN/anti-France fiasco, and the majority of comments grummbled in my direction were from non-Cantonese. I know that a lot of the internet traffic on those issues was initially disseminated by groups like the 五毛党 or 50 cent party, and fervor boycotting french products died away relatively quickly. In the south people often have had direct contact or proximity to America and other western people, but they see the change in China as a process, and would not be willing to risk their businesses and material success in a statement that is likely not to have any great effect on China’s change. Chinese hear enough from their western business partners and friends about the difficulty of working with changing regulations and complex structures of the Chinese government, but without the ability to accelerate the pace of change, the locals in Canton would rather sit under the radar and benefit from the money they are able to make in business and on their properties and land. I am more interested in seeing what happens when the migrant workers intending to return to factories in the south find that they have no job left. The government is encouraging spending on consumer goods through the new purchasing rebate, but the migrant class whom they are trying to encourage to spend their money lacks the land taxes natives to many Canton areas collect as a safety net. I would guess that the government is particularly worried about the language of Charter 08 finding its way among the factory towns of the central and southern China after this years’ new years hiatus finishes. Labor in Canton has historically been a boilling point for these types of situations, and if the paper were to gain some real momentum, that is one particular area where I could imagine it happening.

January 30, 2009 @ 11:46 am | Comment

Hi! Jing,
Death never deters believers. For example, millions of Chinese Communists were slaughtered by their enemies simply for their belief in the fabled Communism, which never came into being, but still was more than enough to inspire so many to die for it. The big monument in Tian’an’men Square built for the revolutionary martyrs now is mocking them for their futile deaths for the cause that has been proven to be a failure–the Chinese revolution has been reversed and Communism failed. The West leads and Democracy rules the world now. Counter-revolution was removed a long time ago from the Chinese law as a crime.

Democracy and freedom inspire people more than any other ideology. You may wonder why the Chinese gvnt doesn’t kill a few signatories but watches the matter to grow bigger, as the govt never hesitated to kill anyone against it before? Now time is different. The Chinese govt is an outcaste in the world and has not justice on its side. The only way left for it to survive is to develop the economy and appease the people.

January 30, 2009 @ 12:37 pm | Comment

It’s more than polemical what Roland says there; it’s quite calculated.

Michael

January 30, 2009 @ 6:46 pm | Comment

Richard, thanks for reporting on Charter 08, I’m very glad to learn that it struggles on!

“I had already signed it hundreds of times in my heart” – I will remember that touching quote next time I hear someone declare that Chinese are “not ready for democracy”.

And thanks for reminding me why I quit reading ESWN long ago.

January 31, 2009 @ 12:21 am | Comment

In This New Year, I Want To Praise The Chinese Communist Party Even More

There was a brand of bicycle produced by China, the brand name is “Forever”. It is a very heavy, very sturdy, but very ugly and very clumsy looking. It does not have much stylish decorations and looks very rusty.

When I was young I used to buy bicycles in the city and sell them in rural areas outside of Shanghai for about 3 months. And one thing that surprised me greatly is that the people of the rural areas don’t like the newest model and the newest brand of bicycles, they’d rather prefer the old “Forever” brand. I remember one time I had a Japanese brand bicycle, with a big “basket” in front, and some very good looking lights at the back. But none of the village folks wanted it, because they are a lot more comfortable with the “Forever” brand, they know it lasts long, and is very sturdy, are is much cheaper than the Japanese brand.

The Chinese Communist Party is just like that brand of bicycle. First, it is very “unstylish” and “old fashioned”. It has vicious nicknames like “commies” and “chicoms”. Its gear and axis all look very ugly and are not even shiny under the sunlight, so you would not like to take your girlfriend out on such an embarrassing looking bicycle. But even though the Chinese Communist Party does not have such gagdets like elections, TV debates, free protests, political ads, etc, etc., it knows how to get things done. It drove away the Japanese, drove away the Nationalists, took back Tibet, and even fought back the bullish USA in Korea.

You may look down on that rusty bicycle. But it’s that rusty bicycle that created the industrial foundation of China in 28 years time. In 1952, China’s industries are only 30% of the national GDP, agriculture is 64%. By 1975, industries became 72%, and agriculture was 28%. It built China’s first nuclear bomb, first automobile, first fighter jet, first nuclear submarine, first personal computer, etc. The Chinese Communist party is really a “treasure-trove” in the hearts of the average Chinese family. Now I ask, what has the Nationalists done for China in their rule before 1949?

Some people like to have style and look good. But if they visit China’s villages, they will realize consumers there have a different set of values. They’ll never believe that there are people out there who actually prefer an old-fashioned, rusty, “Forever” brand of bicycle.

In conclusion, I want to praise the Chinese Communist Party some more. I think the Chinese people need not listen to those democracy lovers, and should totally ignore the flashy elections of America. The Chinese people have chosen the Chinese Communist Party, and we will continue to use that bicycle because we like it and there’s nothing you can do about it. Maybe we’ll renovate that bicycle once every few years, like putting on some new paint, or change an axis. But the bicycle is still the same old rusty bicycle. There’s not a best bicycle in the world, there’s only the most useful and practical bicycle.

And even the biggest China-hater in the US government is accepting the fact that the good old bicycle will be here for a long time, and is not likely to go away soon.

January 31, 2009 @ 12:55 am | Comment

[...] to be exact. But now more Chinese people seem to sign it. The Beijingduck reported yesterday, that Charta 08 received more than 8000 signatures and counting. It seems like more people in China are fed up with the government and their strange policies. I [...]

January 31, 2009 @ 7:55 am | Pingback

In contrast to the Western politics, the Soviet Union used to compared the party leadership to the best stuff on Earth: the sun, the mother, father, etc, and expressed the wish for it to live “Forever” in every occasion. It was a propaganda campaign against the people and perhaps also a self-assurance of the insecure ruler, who eventually was overthrown by the people.

The CCP, along with North Korean leader, have learned it and continue the same practice as the Soviets. Why was the E. Europeans people able to reject their govt’s propaganda, demand freedom and democracy and write a 7.7 Chapter long before the Chinese people could do the same and write a similar 08 Chapter? Something wrong with the Chinese people may be to blame for the lack of initiative to seek freedom and democracy. Perhaps it has to do with the 5000-yr old (or perhaps as long as 6000-yr old) culture to foster mental slavery or the dubious quality of the Chinese people themselves. Anyway, the fact that China, along with the pathetic North Korea and Cuba, remain under Communist rule in the face of democracy and freedom in all other nations is definitely not something to be proud of by the Chinese people. It’s a shame instead.

The CCP and the Chinese people have created almost nothing first. The Germans invented the 1st car and jet fighter, the American the 1st A-bomb, nuclear sub and computer, etc. But the Chinese are good copyists. They have copied everything from the West, including Communism and will copy democracy inevitably

January 31, 2009 @ 10:06 am | Comment

[...] Developments In China, A Grass-Roots Rebellion (Washington Post) Charter 08 Lives? (The Peking [...]

January 31, 2009 @ 8:31 pm | Pingback

the Chinese people have created almost nothing first

Spoken like a true fucktard.

February 1, 2009 @ 6:58 pm | Comment

Ferin, I’m not going to let you use that alias. Change it fast.

El chino, I’ve said before you go to far in selling your own people short. I’m saying it again.

February 2, 2009 @ 5:31 pm | Comment

Twitter page to Liu Xiaobo and the charter 08

Liu Xiaobo has signed as one of 10,000 Chinese the charter 08, a call to more democracy and human rights in China. In Christmas 2009 Liu Xiaobo is condemned to 11 years of custody. At a time in which Chinese authorities believe the attention of the democratic world is lower than commonly. For this reason a Twitter page was opened on the 1st of Christmas Day: http://twitter.com/charta08

December 27, 2009 @ 7:45 pm | Comment

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