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China's Charter 08

October 18, 2010

The New York Book Review
January 15, 2009
translated from the Chinese by Perry Link

The document below, signed by more than two
thousand Chinese citizens, was conceived and
written in conscious admiration of the founding
of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, where, in
January 1977, more than two hundred Czech and
Slovak intellectuals formed a loose, informal,
and open association of people…united by the will
to strive individually and collectively for
respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world.

The Chinese document calls not for ameliorative
reform of the current political system but for an end to some of its
essential features, including one-party rule, and
their replacement with a system based on human rights and democracy.

The prominent citizens who have signed the
document are from both outside and inside the
government, and include not only well-known
dissidents and intellectuals, but also
middle-level officials and rural leaders. They
chose December 10, the anniversary of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as the day
on which to express their political ideas and to
outline their vision of a constitutional,
democratic China. They want Charter 08 to serve
as a blueprint for fundamental political change
in China in the years to come. The signers of the
document will form an informal group, open-ended
in size but united by a determination to promote
democratization and protection of human rights in China and beyond.

Following the text is a postscript describing
some of the regime’s recent reactions to it.

—Perry Link

I. Foreword
A hundred years have passed since the writing of
China’s first constitution. 2008 also marks the sixtieth anniversary of
the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, the thirtieth anniversary of the
appearance of the Democracy Wall in Beijing, and
the tenth of China’s signing of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of
the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy
student protesters. The Chinese people, who have
endured human rights disasters and uncountable
struggles across these same years, now include
many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and
human rights are universal values of humankind
and that democracy and constitutional government
are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.

By departing from these values, the Chinese
government’s approach to “modernization” has
proven disastrous. It has stripped people of
their rights, destroyed their dignity, and
corrupted normal human intercourse. So we ask: Where is
China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it
continue with “modernization” under authoritarian
rule, or will it embrace universal human values,
join the mainstream of civilized nations, and
build a democratic system? There can be no avoiding these questions.

The shock of the Western impact upon China in the
nineteenth century laid bare a decadent
authoritarian system and marked the beginning of
what is often called “the greatest changes in
thousands of years” for China. A
“self-strengthening movement” followed, but this
aimed simply at appropriating the technology to
build gunboats and other Western material
objects. China’s humiliating naval defeat at the
hands of Japan in 1895 only confirmed the
obsolescence of China’s system of government. The
first attempts at modern political change came
with the ill-fated summer of reforms in 1898, but
these were cruelly crushed by ultraconservatives
at China’s imperial court. With the revolution of
1911, which inaugurated Asia’s first republic,
the authoritarian imperial system that had lasted
for centuries was finally supposed to have been
laid to rest. But social conflict inside our
country and external pressures were to prevent
it; China fell into a patchwork of warlord
fiefdoms and the new republic became a fleeting dream.

The failure of both “self- strengthening” and
political renovation caused many of our forebears to reflect deeply on
whether a “cultural illness” was afflicting our
country. This mood gave rise, during the May Fourth Movement of the late
1910s, to the championing of “science and
democracy.” Yet that effort, too, foundered as
warlord chaos persisted and the Japanese invasion
[beginning in Manchuria in 1931] brought national crisis.

Victory over Japan in 1945 offered one more
chance for China to move toward modern
government, but the Communist defeat of the
Nationalists in the civil war thrust the nation
into the abyss of totalitarianism. The “new
China” that emerged in 1949 proclaimed that “the
people are sovereign” but in fact set up a system
in which “the Party is all-powerful.” The
Communist Party of China seized control of all
organs of the state and all political, economic,
and social resources, and, using these, has
produced a long trail of human rights disasters,
including, among many others, the Anti-Rightist
Campaign (1957), the Great Leap Forward
(1958–1960), the Cultural Revolution (1966–1969),
the June Fourth [Tiananmen Square] Massacre
(1989), and the current repression of all
unauthorized religions and the suppression of the
weiquan rights movement [a movement that aims to
defend citizens’ rights promulgated in the
Chinese Constitution and to fight for human
rights recognized by international conventions
that the Chinese government has signed]. During
all this, the Chinese people have paid a
gargantuan price. Tens of millions have lost
their lives, and several generations have seen
their freedom, their happiness, and their human dignity cruelly trampled.

During the last two decades of the twentieth
century the government policy of “Reform and
Opening” gave the Chinese people belief from the
pervasive poverty and totalitarianism of the Mao
Zedong era, and brought substantial increases in
the wealth and living standards of many Chinese
as well as a partial restoration of economic freedom and economic rights.

Civil society began to grow, and popular calls
for more rights and more political freedom have
grown apace. As the ruling elite itself moved
toward private ownership and the market economy,
it began to shift from an outright rejection of
“rights” to a partial acknowledgment of them.

In 1998 the Chinese government signed two
important international human rights conventions; in 2004 it amended its
constitution to include the phrase “respect and
protect human rights”; and this year, 2008, it
has promised to promote a “national human rights
action plan.” Unfortunately most of this
political progress has extended no further than the paper
on which it is written. The political reality,
which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule
of law; it has a constitution but no
constitutional government. The ruling elite
continues to cling to its authoritarian power and
fights off any move toward political change.

The stultifying results are endemic official
corruption, an undermining of the rule of law, weak human rights, decay in
public ethics, crony capitalism, growing
inequality between the wealthy and the poor,
pillage of the natural environment as well as of
the human and historical environments, and the
exacerbation of a long list of social conflicts,
especially, in recent times, a sharpening
animosity between officials and ordinary people.

As these conflicts and crises grow ever more
intense, and as the ruling elite continues with impunity to crush and to
strip away the rights of citizens to freedom, to
property, and to the pursuit of happiness, we see the powerless in our
society—the vulnerable groups, the people who
have been suppressed and monitored, who have
suffered cruelty and even torture, and who have
had no adequate avenues for their protests, no
courts to hear their pleas—becoming more militant
and raising the possibility of a violent conflict
of disastrous proportions. The decline of the
current system has reached the point where change is no longer optional.

II. Our Fundamental Principles
This is a historic moment for China, and our
future hangs in the balance. In reviewing the
political modernization process of the past
hundred years or more, we reiterate and endorse
basic universal values as follows:

Freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal
human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly,

freedom of association, freedom in where to live,
and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among
others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without
freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.

Human rights. Human rights are not bestowed by a
state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom.

The government exists for the protection of the
human rights of its citizens. The exercise of
state power must be authorized by the people. The
succession of political disasters in China’s
recent history is a direct consequence of the
ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.

Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of
every person—regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic

condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or
political belief—are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality
before the law and equality of social, economic,
cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.

Republicanism. Republicanism, which holds that
power should be balanced among different branches
of government and competing interests should be
served, resembles the traditional Chinese
political ideal of “fairness in all under heaven.”

It allows different interest groups and social
assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures
and beliefs, to exercise democratic
self-government and to deliberate in order to
reach peaceful resolution of public questions on
a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.

Democracy. The most fundamental principles of
democracy are that the people are sovereign and
the people select their government. Democracy has
these characteristics: (1) Political power begins
with the people and the legitimacy of a regime
derives from the people. (2) Political power is
exercised through choices that the people make.
(3) The holders of major official posts in
government at all levels are determined through
periodic competitive elections. (4) While
honoring the will of the majority, the
fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of
minorities are protected. In short, emocracy is a
modern means for achieving government truly “of
the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Constitutional rule. Constitutional rule is rule
through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that
are spelled out in a constitution. It means
protecting the freedom and the rights of
citizens, limiting and defining the scope of
legitimate government power, and providing the
administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.

III. What We Advocate
Authoritarianism is in general decline throughout
the world; in China, too, the era of emperors and overlords is on the
way out. The time is arriving everywhere for
citizens to be masters of states. For China the path that leads out of our

current predicament is to divest ourselves of the
authoritarian notion of reliance on an “enlightened overlord” or an
“honest official” and to turn instead toward a
system of liberties, democracy, and the rule of law, and toward fostering
the consciousness of modern citizens who see
rights as fundamental and participation as a
duty. Accordingly, and in a spirit of this duty
as responsible and constructive citizens, we
offer the following recommendations on national
governance, citizens’ rights, and social development:

A New Constitution. We should recast our present
constitution, rescinding its provisions that contradict the principle
that sovereignty resides with the people and
turning it into a document that genuinely
guarantees human rights, authorizes the exercise
of public power, and serves as the legal
underpinning of China’s democratization. The
constitution must be the highest law in the land,
beyond violation by any individual, group, or political party.

Separation of Powers. We should construct a
modern government in which the separation of
legislative, judicial, and executive power is
guaranteed. We need an Administrative Law that
defines the scope of government responsibility
and prevents abuse of administrative power.
Government should be responsible to taxpayers.
Division of power between provincial governments
and the central government should adhere to the
principle that central powers are only those
specifically granted by the constitution and all
other powers belong to the local governments.

Legislative Democracy. Members of legislative
bodies at all levels should be chosen by direct
election, and legislative democracy should
observe just and impartial principles.

An Independent Judiciary. The rule of law must be
above the interests of any particular political
party and judges must be independent. We need to
establish a constitutional supreme court and
institute procedures for constitutional review.
As soon as possible, we should abolish all of the
Committees on Political and Legal Affairs that
now allow Communist Party officials at every
level to decide politically sensitive cases in
advance and out of court. We should strictly
forbid the use of public offices for private purposes.

Public Control of Public Servants. The military
should be made answerable to the national
government, not to a political party, and should
be made more professional. Military personnel
should swear allegiance to the constitution and
remain nonpartisan. Political party organizations
must be prohibited in the military. All public
officials including police should serve as
nonpartisans, and the current practice of
favoring one political party in the hiring of public servants must end.

Guarantee of Human Rights. There must be strict
guarantees of human rights and respect for human
dignity. There should be a Human Rights
Committee, responsible to the highest legislative
body, that will prevent the government from
abusing public power in violation of human
rights. A democratic and constitutional China
especially must guarantee the personal freedom of
citizens. No one should suffer illegal arrest,
detention, arraignment, interrogation, or
punishment. The system of “Reeducation through Labor” must be abolished.

Election of Public Officials. There should be a
comprehensive system of democratic elections
based on “one person, one vote.” The direct
election of administrative heads at the levels of
county, city, province, and nation should be
systematically implemented. The rights to hold
periodic free elections and to participate in
them as a citizen are inalienable.

Rural–Urban Equality. The two-tier household
registry system must be abolished. This system
favors urban residents and harms rural residents.
We should establish instead a system that gives
every citizen the same constitutional rights and
the same freedom to choose where to live.

Freedom to Form Groups. The right of citizens to
form groups must be guaranteed. The current system for registering
nongovernment groups, which requires a group to
be “approved,” should be replaced by a system in
which a group simply registers itself. The
formation of political parties should be governed
by the constitution and the laws, which means
that we must abolish the special privilege of one
party to monopolize power and must guarantee
principles of free and fair competition among political parties.

Freedom to Assemble. The constitution provides
that peaceful assembly, demonstration, protest,
and freedom of expression are fundamental rights
of a citizen. The ruling party and the government
must not be permitted to subject these to illegal
interference or unconstitutional obstruction.

Freedom of Expression. We should make freedom of
speech, freedom of the press, and academic
freedom universal, thereby guaranteeing that
citizens can be informed and can exercise their
right of political supervision. These freedoms
should be upheld by a Press Law that abolishes
political restrictions on the press. The
provision in the current Criminal Law that

refers to “the crime of incitement to subvert
state power” must be abolished. We should end the
practice of viewing words as crimes.

Freedom of Religion. We must guarantee freedom of
religion and belief, and institute a separation of religion and state.

There must be no governmental interference in
peaceful religious activities. We should abolish
any laws, regulations, or local rules that limit
or suppress the religious freedom of citizens. We
should abolish the current system that requires
religious groups (and their places of worship) to
get official approval in advance and substitute
for it a system in which registry is optional
and, for those who choose to register, automatic.

Civic Education. In our schools we should abolish
political curriculums and examinations that are
designed to indoctrinate students in state
ideology and to instill support for the rule of
one party. We should replace them with civic
education that advances universal values and
citizens’ rights, fosters civic consciousness,
and promotes civic virtues that serve society.

Protection of Private Property. We should
establish and protect the right to private
property and promote an economic system of free
and fair markets. We should do away with
government monopolies in commerce and industry
and guarantee the freedom to start new
enterprises. We should establish a Committee on
State-Owned Property, reporting to the national
legislature, that will monitor the transfer of
state-owned enterprises to private ownership in a
fair, competitive, and orderly manner. We should
institute a land reform that promotes private
ownership of land, guarantees the right to buy
and sell land, and allows the true value of
private property to be adequately reflected in the market.

Financial and Tax Reform. We should establish a
democratically regulated and accountable system
of public finance that ensures the protection of
taxpayer rights and that operates through legal
procedures. We need a system by which public
revenues that belong to a certain level of
government—central, provincial, county or local—are controlled at that level.

We need major tax reform that will abolish any
unfair taxes, simplify the tax system, and spread the tax burden fairly.

Government officials should not be able to raise
taxes, or institute new ones, without public
deliberation and the approval of a democratic
assembly. We should reform the ownership system
in order to encourage competition among a wider
variety of market participants.

Social Security. We should establish a fair and
adequate social security system that covers all
citizens and ensures basic access to education,
health care, retirement security, and employment.

Protection of the Environment. We need to protect
the natural environment and to promote
development in a way that is sustainable and
responsible to our descendants and to the rest of
humanity. This means insisting that the state and
its officials at all levels not only do what they
must do to achieve these goals, but also accept the supervision and
participation of nongovernmental organizations.

A Federated Republic. A democratic China should
seek to act as a responsible major power
contributing toward peace and development in the
Asian Pacific region by approaching others in a
spirit of equality and fairness. In Hong Kong and
Macao, we should support the freedoms that
already exist. With respect to Taiwan, we should
declare our commitment to the principles of
freedom and democracy and then, negotiating as
equals and ready to compromise, seek a formula
for peaceful unification. We should approach
disputes in the national-minority areas of China
with an open mind, seeking ways to find a
workable framework within which all ethnic and
religious groups can flourish. We should aim
ultimately at a federation of democratic communities of China.

Truth in Reconciliation. We should restore the
reputations of all people, including their family members, who suffered
political stigma in the political campaigns of
the past or who have been labeled as criminals because of their thought,
speech, or faith. The state should pay
reparations to these people. All political
prisoners and prisoners of conscience
must be released. There should be a Truth
Investigation Commission charged with finding the
facts about past injustices and atrocities,
determining responsibility for them, upholding
justice, and, on these bases, seeking social
reconciliation.

China, as a major nation of the world, as one of
five permanent members of the United Nations
Security Council, and as a member of the UN
Council on Human Rights, should be contributing
to peace for humankind and progress toward human rights.

Unfortunately, we stand today as the only country
among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics.

Our political system continues to produce human
rights disasters and social crises, thereby not
only constricting China’s own development but
also limiting the progress of all of human
civilization. This must change, truly it must.
The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.

Accordingly, we dare to put civic spirit into
practice by announcing Charter 08. We hope that
our fellow citizens who feel a similar sense of
crisis, responsibility, and mission, whether they
are inside the government or not, and regardless
of their social status, will set aside small
differences to embrace the broad goals of this
citizens’ movement. Together we can work for
major changes in Chinese society and for the
rapid establishment of a free, democratic, and
constitutional country. We can bring to reality
the goals and ideals that our people have
incessantly been seeking for more than a hundred
years, and can bring a brilliant new chapter to Chinese civilization.

—Translated from the Chinese by Perry Link

Postscript
The planning and drafting of Charter 08 began in
the late spring of 2008, but Chinese authorities
were apparently unaware of it or unconcerned by
it until several days before it was announced on
December 10. On December 6, Wen Kejian, a writer
who signed the charter, was detained in the city
of Hangzhou in eastern China and questioned for
about an hour. Police told Wen that Charter 08
was “different” from earlier dissident
statements, and “a fairly grave matter.” They
said there would be a coordinated investigation
in all cities and provinces to “root out the
organizers,” and they advised Wen to remove his
name from the charter. Wen declined, telling the
authorities that he saw the charter as a fundamental turning point in history.

Meanwhile, on December 8, in Shenzhen in the far
south of China, police called on Zhao Dagong, a
writer and signer of the charter, for a “chat.”
They told Zhao that the central authorities were
concerned about the charter and asked if he was
the organizer in the Shenzhen area.

Later on December 8, at 11 PM in Beijing, about
twenty police entered the home of Zhang Zuhua,
one of the charter’s main drafters. A few of the
police took Zhang with them to the local police
station while the rest stayed and, as Zhang’s
wife watched, searched the home and confiscated
books, notebooks, Zhang’s passport, all four of
the family’s computers, and all of their cash and
credit cards. (Later Zhang learned that his
family’s bank accounts, including those of both
his and his wife’s parents, had been emptied.)
Meanwhile, at the police station, Zhang was
detained for twelve hours, where he was
questioned in detail about Charter 08 and the
group Chinese Human Rights Defenders in which he is active.

It was also late on December 8 that another of
the charter’s signers, the literary critic and
prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo, was taken away by
police. His telephone in Beijing went unanswered,
as did e-mail and Skype messages sent to him.

As of the present writing, he’s believed to be in
police custody, although the details of his detention are not known.

On the morning of December 9, Beijing lawyer Pu
Zhiqiang was called in for a police “chat,” and in the evening the

physicist and philosopher Jiang Qisheng was
called in as well. Both had signed the charter and were friends of the

drafters. On December 10—the day the charter was
formally announced—the Hangzhou police returned to the home of Wen

Kejian, the writer they had questioned four days
earlier. This time they were more threatening.
They told Wen he would face severe punishment if
he wrote about the charter or about Liu Xiaobo’s
detention. “Do you want three years in prison?”

they asked. “Or four?”

On December 11 the journalist Gao Yu and the
writer Liu Di, both well-known in Beijing, were interrogated about their

signing of the Charter. The rights lawyer, Teng
Biao, was approached by the police but declined, on principle, to meet

with them. On December 12 and 13 there were
reports of interrogations in many provinces—Shaanxi, Hunan, Zhejiang, Fujian,

Guangdong, and others—of people who had seen the
charter on the Internet, found that they agreed
with it, and signed. With these people the police
focused on two questions: “How did you get
involved?” and “What do you know about the drafters and organizers?”

The Chinese authorities seem unaware of the irony
of their actions. Their efforts to quash Charter 08 only serve to
underscore China’s failure to uphold the very
principles that the charter advances. The charter
calls for “free expression” but the regime says,
by its actions, that it has once again denied
such expression. The charter calls for
freedom to form groups, but the nationwide police
actions that have accompanied the charter’s
release have specifically aimed at blocking the
formation of a group. The charter says “we should
end the practice of viewing words as crimes,” and
the regime says (literally, to Wen Kejian) “we
can send you to prison for these words.” The
charter calls for the rule of law and the regime
sends police in the middle of the night to act
outside the law; the charter says “police should
serve as nonpartisans,” and here the police are plainly partisan.

Charter 08 is signed only by citizens of the
People’s Republic of China who are living inside
China. But Chinese living outside China are
signing a letter of strong support for the
charter. The eminent historian Yu Ying-shih, the
astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, writers Ha Jin and
Zheng Yi, and more than 160 others have so far signed.

On December 12, the Dalai Lama issued his own
letter in support of the charter, writing that “a
harmonious society can only come into being when
there is trust among the people, freedom from
fear, freedom of expression, rule of law,
justice, and equality.” He called on the Chinese
government to release prisoners “who have been
detained for exercising their freedom of expression.”

—Perry Link, December 18, 2008
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