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October 14, 2010

Charter 2008: China’s Path to Freedom?

SS Editorial

Liu Xiaobo

This October the Nobel Peace Prize has been given to Liu Xiaobo, one of the authors of the 2008 Charter for basic freedoms in China. Liu received news of his award in his prison cell, where he is serving an 11 year sentence for ‘incitement to subvert the state’. News of his award has been immediately suppressed within China. Norway, home of the peace prize, has been warned it could suffer serious consequences.

This repressive response is the Chinese government’s latest in a larger polarizing debate about ‘universal values’ (such as human rights, elected government, and the rule of law) as the basis of political governance in the People’s Republic. Given China’s importance, with one-fifth of the world’s population and the world’s most dynamic emerging market, this is a critical debate in and outside the country.

Charter 2008 is rooted in a deep historical debate in China’s struggle for self-determination in a hostile imperialist environment and an oppressive one-party state reality. In these two contexts, Chinese intellectuals, who have suffered constant police harassment for raising these questions, have striven to find a path that claims basic freedoms for individuals within a very contradictory socio-political reality.

The Charter itself consists of three statements: the struggle to create a modern China, a statement of fundamental principles, and nineteen specific actions that could be taken.

While western reports stress how the Charter was issued in 2008 on the sixtieth anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its Chinese authors emphasize a series of national anniversaries: the first Chinese constitution in 1908, the thirtieth anniversary of the Democracy Wall movement in 1978, and the tenth anniversary of China signing the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. In particular, the Charter emphasizes how China is approaching the twentieth anniversary of the student protest movement for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In fact, Liu was a protest leader to the bitter end when the People’s Liberation Army cleared the square and Beijing at the cost of hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of lives on the night of June 3.

The fundamental principles the Charter enunciates are quite basic by Canadian standards: freedom, human rights, equality, democracy, the rule of law, and for a Republic in fact, not just rhetoric. The irony is that China’s current written constitution already expresses these values, but it does not honour them. This is a fact witnessed by the weiquan, the national civil-rights reform movement – which has documented hundreds of individuals who go to Beijing to petition against local wrongs and end up being kidnapped and forced to return home.

When the Charter advocates specific actions, however, the explosive character of its demands are revealed.

Speaking Some Truths to Power

Tiananmen Square One basic demand is to separate the Communist Party from the state. For example, any legal cases that are deemed to be ‘politically sensitive’ are actually tried in the CCP’s Committees on Political and Legal Affairs before they go to the courts. The Army and the Police are directly accountable to the Party, without even the fig leaf of civilian oversight.

Another set of demands, at the heart of the Tiananmen movement, is for basic personal freedoms, to free expression instead of the ‘words as crimes’ reality, a free press, space for non-governmental organizations on issues like the environment, elections, a multi-party system, and protection of person and property from arbitrary state actions.

But it is when the Charter’s social demands are presented that China’s contradictory reality gets expressed. In one sense, the Charter is a progressive document. It promotes social and regional equality, including the right to strike. It even includes some kind of ‘federated republic’ between the Han majority and ethnic minorities, which led the Dalai Lama on behalf of the Tibetan government-in-exile to endorse the Charter. A genuinely democratic republic would also lay the basis for Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland, a position the Taiwanese opposition Democratic Progressive Party endorses.

In another sense, however, the Charter’s demand for freedom is for market forces to be deepened – to further privatize the economy, make it more competitive, and entrench private property rights. This capitalist development program, already embraced by the Communist Party, has generated inequality between urban and rural China, undercut the most basic social programs in education, health, pensions, and job security for the vast majority, and injected the potential for market crisis as the inflationary crisis of the late 1980s showed.

Can a program for individual market and political freedoms address all of these questions? Not from a socialist point of view, especially given the appeal to a common patriotism. But Charter 2008, and the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, are important mobilizing symbols in the struggle for both development and social liberation in China - as was the Freedom Charter and the award of the Nobel peace prize to Nelson Mandela in the struggle against apartheid. They can be a step along the way to a much greater freedom.