Wednesday, January 7, 2009

China: Revolution or Reform? - A Summary of the "Charter 08" Dispute

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 (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 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. #


Anonymous said...

Hey, I've practiced Falun Gong for years, do you have any links or further information on what you described above? We are not interested in having a say in the future government of China. All we're doing at the moment is just trying to stop the persecution, which you can read about here, for example:

Xujun Eberlein said...

If you can read Chinese, go to and do a search with the key words 零八宪章, you'll see what I described.

Adam said...

The status quo is a powerful force, especially when it seems to be just fine for a great many people. Regardless of the "form" of democracy and/or other political/social/legal reforms proposed by Charter 08 or any such document that is organized, written, promulgated, and supported by citizens outside of the control of the government, it will be difficult to find support among any sizable majority of the population. I think this has more to do with the realities of bringing such changes about than it does with any serious shortcomings in the content of the document itself, which was never intended as a full-fledged alternative plan for government in China. The CCP is a powerful, well-entrenched government that now enjoys the dependence of the world's largest economies and that has sworn itself to a fight to the death against the principles of multi-party democracy. It is correct that Charter 08 has failed to really win the hearts and minds of the broader Chinese public and may very well fizzle out over time. But, is that really because of intellectual misgivings surrounding the document's? Or is it because of a widespread belief that to fight against the CCP for the sake of democracy is, at this point in history, a suicide mission? To me, the popular hesitance regarding the document begins with that fear for life, family, and freedom that frequently accompanies political activism in China, rather than with the belief that the peculiarities of Charter 08's ideals need a little bit of conceptual tweaking before they can really be suitable for China's historical/cultural setting.

Also, just a general follow-up question that probably has no answer: Does anyone have any statistical sense of the proportion of Chinese citizens that know of and have read Charter 08? Did it ever have a chance to really circulate?

Adam said...

Sorry. Typo...

*intellectual misgivings surrounding the document's content?

Anonymous said...

Dear Xujun
I would like to point out that Falun Gong is neither a religious nor political group as you stated, but an ancient spiritual practice that the Chinese Communist party are afraid of and so have persecuted and tortured for 10 years, with the loss of thousands of lives. I am sure that you understand our plight and the need for us to tell the world the truth about what is happening in China. Please I implore you to be very careful about the language you use about Falun Gong as you are adding fire to the persecution and I am sure that you do not want that on your conscience.

pug ster said...

I think many Chinese Citizens realize that although the CCP government has given bum rap, it has produced real results where in the last 30 years, most of its citizens got a enough to eat, a good job, a good home, a good school, etc... Now this NED funded Liu Xiaobo thinks that the current government is flawed and that it should be changed. Of course, you have the usual suspects who support this charter from the DPP, Falun Gong, and the Dalai Lama. But most Chinese citizens thinks that the CCP has brought so much prosperity, and have the mentality "if it is not broken, why fix it?"

Xujun Eberlein said...

@Adam, your argument is legitimate and sensible, however your observation about the reason of Chinese people's hesitance is not quite true. Inside of China, there are people who fear, but more don't care. Among overseas Chinese, whose reactions are what I discussed in the report, the "fear" factor does not play much of a role at all, yet there are undeniable dissenting voices regarding Charter 08. IMO, it is not a bad thing that there exist both supporting and dissenting voices; the debate helps to clarify the truth (whatever it is).

As to your follow-up question, from my communication with friends and family in China, people who are interested in politics know about Charter 08, otherwise they don't. This is to say, the latter is the majority. I'm going to China for a visit soon and will find out more about this.

@Pug Ster, I'm not sure how many will agree with you that "it is not broken," but what you said certainly represents the view of a big crowd.

@FLG Anon, you seem to be upset for the wrong reason, given that my report is quite neutral and factual. Your distinction between "spiritual practice" and "religion" does not make much sense to me, as the two are pretty closely intertwined. There is nothing wrong with the word “religion"; it is neither a commendatory or derogatory word in English. As for politics, FLG actively promotes the overthrow of the Chinese government and calls for people to quit the Chinese Communist Party, those are political activities. I have made no judgment here, just pointed out what is being done.

If you really want to gain more sympathy for FLG, you should stop alienating neutral reporters, and do less political propaganda, or if you insist doing it, do it more intelligently than the communist party. That is my advice to you.

Anonymous said...

FLG is 20 year ancient, give me a break!

SauLaan said...

@Pug Ster, lol NED-funded?

You might as well just wear a 50 Cent Party t-shirt...NED accusations are the new "thing" these past few months.

Hope you are satisfied accepting money to help keep Chinese people shackled to such an old-fashioned system.

wuming said...


Just wondering, do you mean that Charter 08 drafters are not NED founded or that they are but that's a good thing since there is the word "Democracy" in it?

"50 Cent Party" has almost the same life-span and usage as "NED founding". Dreamed up by the same organization?

Uln said...

Liu and the PEN have recieved several times grants from the NED. Not necessarily in direct connection with the Charter. While I understand that any funding by American Congress can weaken the charter's position in the eyes of many Chinese, I don't think this in itself makes the Charter less legitimate.

There has been some very interesting comments last week in FM and in my blog. I liked especially the one pointing out that another famous dissident did exactly the same and toured the World to get funds. I am speaking of Sun Yat Sen.

Check out the discussion at Chinese FM here:

Xujun Eberlein said...

Uln, you reminded me another question. I'm curious why Prof. Perry Link never came out to correct his translation - it is still the same inaccurate one on I was going to raise this question in my report but didn't due to length restriction. What's your take on this?

Uln said...

Yes, I am surprised by that too. Even more because the more I compare the documents the more I see the differents are by no means superficial. They really change the meaning of it. There were some good comments about that on my Charter translation post.

I was tipped off by one of my readers that Perry Link actually admitted that there were some last minute differences when he posted the translation to the MCLC list. It seems that there were some last minute changes and that he had not included them into his translation.

I can only see 2 resons why he has not corrected it:
1- He does not agree with the changes and so he is sticking to his version.
2- Once his translation was made world-famous by the New Yorker, he thought he would lose way too much face to come and change it the second day.

The explanation is probaby somewhere in the middle.

PS. I just posted a new Charter post with some interesting research of censorship methods, check it out.

Uln said...

Oops, I was still editing the comment. Points 1 and 2 should read:

1- He does not agree with the changes and so he is sticking to his version. Which would indicate that he has been active and influent during the process of drafting.

2- Once his translation was made world-famous by the NYRB, he thought he would lose way too much face to come and change it the second day.

Adam said...

Thanks for your response, Xujun. I'm sure you're right that a strong majority of those who are aware of the document maintain ambivalent perspectives, but I guess I just have a hard time believing that, among those who follow and have an interest in politics, the majority would simply shrug off the implications of Charter 08 and not care or have an opinion one way or another. Especially given the position that "democracy" has held at times in China. I guess I've heard a number of people argue that "people in China don't really care about politics" and that "they are happy to leave politics to the Party." That's one argument that I just don't buy. The fact that China was one of the most -- if not the most -- politically tumultuous countries of the 20th century belies those points of view. It's just that dissenting views towards the document are easy to vocalize; supporting views are far more difficult and even dangerous to express. One solution to the dilemma, if an unfavorable one, is to say nothing at all or just pretend not to care. For example, we know that a lot of public voices in support of Charter 08 have been banned from writing or publishing anything. For many, that means a loss of livelihood, something that I know I wouldn't be willing to risk. That's not an issue for public voices against Charter 08.

bien said...

People I know (a small sample size) in China are not aware of Charter 08 and the buzz around it. The main reason I think is not they don't care about politics, but a matter of information accessibility, i.e. how easy this information is available to them. These people are not able to know about Charter 08 from the major news outlet (e.g. tv and news papers)in the first place. How can they know what the charter is about, not to mention to discuss them. Although people who care about politics can go on the Internet and use different technologies to find some information (btw, in, a simple search of 08宪章 resulted a reminder saying "搜索结果可能不符合相关法律法规和政策,未予显示。"), but the percentage of this particular group is small and not representative for the majority of online community, which is already a skewed representation of the mass population in China. The situation is sort of like a field in winter, where most of the seeds under the frozen surface can't directly feel the sunlight and fresh air even though a few seeds do germinate here and there from time to time despite the harshness of the winter.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Adam, I think attributing the muted reactions to simply "fear" is way too simplified an approach. If we are talking about people inside of China, because most of them are unaware of the document (as Bien's and my experiences suggest), we can only discuss theoretically how they might react if they all knew about it. ESWN has done an analysis on this, see I think the classification structure he used needs a bit more work, but his analysis method is a sound one.

I also think his dismissal of the student class (class 9) might be a mistake, because the internet surfers consist largely of members from this class. They are the information and opinion spreaders. On the other hand, because the economic success of China's reform in the past 30 years, this class has become more nationalistic than ever, and this could make them an opposition force against Charter 08. In fact some overseas members of this class has already demonstrated such a tendency.

When I say many people don't care, I mainly mean the working class and the peasant class, not the intellectuals. People in the working class and peasant class tend to care about immediate matters related to their own interest much more than an abstract ideal. For this reason, I believe Charter 08 does need more work in order to appeal to those people.

By the way, I've never heard anyone say "they are happy to leave politics to the Party." Where did you get that idea from?

pug ster said...


Thanks for the link, as there are idealists in many students and intellectuals who thinks would fit in class 9. I would disagree that most internet surfers who would actually have access to this charter 08 thinks that it is nonsense anyways. If there is something controversial and thinks the government is trying to censor it, Chinese citizens would know.

This charter 08 does not represent the majority. It just reminds me of a poster in FM who lived China in one of the hutongs who have to share a toilet, have no heat or hot water. The government comes in and wants everybody to leave their hutongs to live in an apartment building with heat, hot water, and their private toilet. Most people are glad to leave, but a few of them are sentimental about leaving, wants more compensation, and would protest. Of course Western Media and human rights group would focus on these protesters.

carryanne said...

I also think Falun Gong Anon's comment was out of place.

I don't understand the reference in your article because I'm not Chinese, but I would not have got hung up on the difference with spiritual practice and religion. Why does that Falun Gong person not try to look at other people's point of view instead of just just accusing them for nothing?

Saying that however, Xujun, I don't know why you think that the Falun Gong peoples's way of stopping persecution is in any way similar to CCP. CCP is brutal, deceitful killer who doesn't care about life or truth. They engage in terrorism to control minds and use lies to brainwash.

carryanne said...

by the way, it's true, Falun Gong is not a political group. Yeah they advocate for quitting CCP, but for them this is is the realm of humanitarian/spiritual practice. They don't do that to bring some political changes to China, they want people to be happy and to end persecution against people, including Falun Gong etc.

MatthewTan said...

So Liu Xiaobo is funded by NED, and the Charter08 is supported by the Dalai Lama, Taiwan DPP, FLG. Then it is doomed.

Falun Gong has become a political organisation to subvert the rule of CCP.

When Falun Gong really denounces ALL politics, all superstition, all rumour-mongering about China, then that is the time Chinese people will support you.

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Luke Lea said...

Concerning the charter itself, the challenge of course is getting there from here in a way that does not threaten the interests of the ruling circles. A big part of that threat concerns the security of their fortunes, which they and everyone else knows has been illegally acquired, at least in large measure. It might be of interest therefore to see how such issues are addressed in the US. There have been many large-scale swindles and fortunes made by underhanded ways in our history. The way our property law is written however allows such fortunes to be legally retained after a certain passage of time, provided they have not been legally challenged. In many cases only the persons defrauded can bring suit. In other cases the events are simply swept under the rug -- our Savings and Loan crisis being a recent example. Of course this doesn't mean corruption should be tolerated, only that in the course of time old sins forgiven.

This idea of forgiveness is a central idea in Christian culture. Maybe the Chinese could learn from it.