New America Media, News Analysis, Xujun Eberlein, Published: Jan 07, 2009
(Note: the following text is my original draft, slightly longer than the NAM published version, with more complete links. Posted with NAM's permission. - Xujun)
During the final month of 2008, there was a heated debate among Chinese bloggers and commentators outside of China. The cause of it was "Charter 08," a democracy manifesto originally signed by over 300 Chinese citizens and published on the internet on December 10.
Times Online said Sunday that since then it "has been signed by more than 7,000 prominent citizens," but the number is difficult to verify. Two versions of the English translation for this manifesto can be found online, one at nybooks.com (by professor Perry Link), and one at Human Rights in China. While the former is widely linked and reprinted, the latter is a more accurate translation of the Chinese original. A detailed recounting of the birth of the Charter can be found on Fool’s Mountain.
By now the hubbub around "Charter 08" has largely died down, however the issues raised in the dispute continue to beckon for attention. There are unanswered questions as to why the Chinese government and the US media reacted the way they did, and whether the Charter has achieved its intended effect. As such it might be a good time to look back at the reactions the event has 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 "Charter 08," 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 for New Year’s Day, but police still did not say why he was detained. Many other signatories were summoned and threatened, according to a post on Fool’s 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.
A well-known dissident writer and journalist in Beijing, Dai Qing, also one of the signatories, said in an interview with Voice of Germany that "the [Chinese] government's reaction is too irrational, a total surprise to us."
On December 11, The US State Department's 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 U.S. position was another example of the unwelcome "interference of other nations in China's internal affairs."
Curiously, major US 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, or FLG, a religious and political group that has been banned in mainland China. A search on FLG's Chinese language website Sunday came up with 100 links cheering "Charter 08," with titles such 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 FLG originally found "Charter 08" an exciting sign of the coming revolution and supported it whole-heartedly. Later, though, they made a 180 degree turn after the FLG leader deemed the manifesto not revolutionary enough, but rather a "ghost shadow" of the communist party.
Understandably however, revolution is favored by few Chinese, whether supporters or contenders of Charter 08. In contrast, many pointed out the legitimacy of Charter 08 in accordance with China's constitution.
Among the well-known signatories, 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 the aforementioned interview. 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 I visited that discusses Charter 08, in English or Chinese, there are not only voices advocating and opposing, but also supporters raising constructive criticism and contenders issuing moral support (plus the usual white noises and meaningless vituperates). The issues that are at the center of argument include – by no means an exhaustive list – whether the ideas are too "Western," or the proposed democracy model suits China; whether the proposal for a "Federal Republic of China" makes sense, or it has gone too far; whether the wording in the Foreword is needlessly inflammatory; whether Taiwan's democracy is a good model for the mainland; whether the aim of the Charter is to agitate the government or have a practical impact.
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 "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 to praise Charter 08 but also criticize it as "unable to transcend 'great Chinese nationalism' as its implied commitment to eventual unification seems to share the CCP`s rejection of the free right of choice of Taiwan`s 23 million people, not to mention the people of Tibet or even Hong Kong and Macau."
- A religious blogger claims that she does not support the Charter because it doesn't address how to reform the Chinese people's faith.
As a Chinese adage goes, "What bewilders the players, spectators see clearly." A European expat blog in China, Chinayouren blog, which was the first to note the inconsistency between the Chinese original of Charter 08 and Prof. Link's translation of it, published a post on 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 that, "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."
If nothing else, "Charter 08" has stimulated a great discussion on China's future direction. #