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.
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.
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.