When China's first Premier Zhou Enlai was asked in the mid-20th century for his opinion on the historical significance of the 1789 French Revolution, he is said to have replied: "It's too soon to tell." I've started to give the same answer when people ask me about Charter 08. It's way too soon. It could be completely forgotten a year from now. Or it may be viewed by future historians as one of many arguments - some theoretical, some concrete, some practical - that helped advance and shape the Chinese people's emergent debate about their future. Some hope that this "principled blueprint for change may yet inspire other Chinese to see the hollowness of the party's promises of wealth over the universal promise of freedom." We'll see. If forced to bet this week on one of those three, my money goes for scenario number two.
On December 18th, President Hu Jintao delivered the CCP's first rebuttal to Charter 08 and its call for multi-party democracy. He insisted that China will never copy Western political institutions, and echoed Deng Xiaoping's assertion that "only development makes hard sense." His point was that only the economic pragmatism and political stability brought by the Communist Party's rule would enable the Chinese people to achieve prosperity and fulfill their dreams. On Sunday the party's second rebuttal to Charter 08 (full Chinese text here) came from China's number-four leader Jia Qinglin, in the form of a long essay in the Communist Party's main ideological journal, Qiushi ["Seeking Truth"]. The essay takes Hu's speech a step further. Hu said that China' won't copy Western multiparty democracy; Jia's article seems like a call to start digging trenches for an upcoming fight. According to Reuters' translation of one passage, the Party must "build a line of defence to resist Western two-party and multi-party systems, bicameral legislature, the separation of powers and other kinds of erroneous ideological interferences," and "consciously abide by the Party's political discipline and resolutely safeguard the Party's centralised unity."
Does this imply that Party unity is a little shaky lately? Or is it just a preemptive warning in case anybody was getting any wrong ideas about the Party's tolerance levels for political reform debates? I'm not enough of an insider to know.
Meanwhile, very far outside the Party, Charter 08 supporters are derisive. Chengdu-based intellectual Ruan Yunfei pulled no punches in his Monday-morning reaction to Jia, going so far as to write: 凡是反对公正公开公平竞争者，都是民众利益之敌. "Anybody who opposes just, open, and fair competition is the enemy of the people's interests." He wonders rightly how a government that claims with such certitude to be the best thing for the Chinese people can be so afraid of competition.
It has not been possible for the Chinese people to debate China's political future fully and openly. As Uln at the Chinayouren blog points out, China's net nannies are doing their best to scrub mentions of Charter 08 from the parts of the Internet they have some control over. Still, debates are happening. In spite of censorship, many people have managed to find their way to the document and many have managed to blog about why they did or didn't sign Charter 08. Xujun Eberlein has a good summary of the wide gamut of opinions about the Charter that can be found around the Chinese-language internet. Even some people who agreed with the charter and were brave enough to sign it sometimes felt the need to qualify their support. One example is the Beijing-based blogger who goes by the pen name Doubleaf:
In summary, he warns that the last time China's intellectuals got swept up in an idealistic belief that changing the political system would solve China's problems was in 1949, when the Communist revolution happened. He argues that changing China's political system won't on its own be enough to solve China's urgent problems of education, environment, and poverty.
Roland Soong at ESWN has a detailed analysis of why "there is no groundswell of popular support flowing from inside China." He argues that the "class of enlightened intellectuals" who form the main drafters and supporters of the Charter are only one of nine different socio-political categories of people in China today. Among the points he makes: the majority of China's population is made of peasant farmers who, while having the "lowest social status" in China are less likely to be attracted by liberal political theory and "most easily attracted by the leftists to engage in a new revolution to "re-distribute the land/wealth." If social change is to occur through the combined efforts of the laborers and peasants, China will repeat its history from the late 1940's." He also argues that Charter 08 does not sufficiently appeal to China's materialistic middle-class:
They are amendable to reforming the political systems, provided that their present situations won't be negatively affected as a result. What guarantees does Charter 08 offer them? Oh, let's get rid of the Communists, we'll have an American democratic system, we'll only elections based upon universal suffrage and then corruption will be gone and we will all be even more prosperous? Hmmm ... Instead of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, we can elect our own presidents and premiers just like they do in USA and Taiwan. Hmmm ... Do you really think that George W. Bush and Chen Shui-bian will be better for China?
In Washington, many foreign policy thought-leaders like political scientist Daniel Drezner seem to think that Charter 08 could be the rallying cry for revolution in short order, and that it has direct parallels with Czechoslovakia's Charter 77. Roland agrees with Dave at Mutant Palm (who lives and works in Quanzhou and doesn't see people there getting worked up about Charter 08) that "Charter ‘08 arguably has had a more significant impact on readers of the New York Review of Books than it has on China." Roland translated this very useful analysis published on an overseas-Chinese website comparing Charter 08 and Charter 77. The author's conclusion is worth quoting at length:
Czechoslovakia had a long tradition of freedom, democracy and human rights. This tradition was suppressed by the Communist authorities, but it continued to exist underneath the surface. Once triggered, it became a raging river. The situation in Czechoslovakia back then is somewhat similar to China when the Cultural Revolution ended and the reforms were beginning. At the time, the intellectuals thought that the western world was paradise. Thirty years later, the Chinese people no longer believe in the much self-ballyhooed western ideology. There have been too many examples of third-wave transitions to democracy that failed, of which Taiwan is one.
The eastern European countries also resented deeply the hegemonic Russian empire. Charter 77 seemed to be directed against the Czechoslovak Communist Party but it was actually aimed at the Soviet Russian masters behind the scene. But there are no puppet masters behind the Chinese Communists. On the contrary, the Chinese people who signed Charter 08 are getting the most encouragement and praises from the western world, and this will naturally lead to nationalistic resentment.
In summary, Chinese society is highly complex with many diverse interests being involved. This is unlike the relatively closed societies in eastern European back then, where the classes are clearly defined, the culturati and intelligentsia are prominent and draw huge public attention with their speeches.
On a recent trip to Beijing and Shanghai, I asked a lot of Chinese friends about Charter 08. While Charter 08 may have been modeled after Charter 77, none of the people I spoke with who considered themselves sympathetic or supportive of Charter 08, and who knew something about Cold War era Eastern Europe, actually believed that the conditions surrounding Charter 77 and the conditions surrounding Charter 08 are remotely similar. Despite being run by a party that dubiously calls itself "communist" and which falls in to the general category of "authoritarian" (which encompasses a wide variety of relationships between people and their non-democratically elected governments), China has few similarities to Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. What's more, thanks to the Internet, there is a great deal more political discourse and deliberation going on in China today than there was in Czechoslovakia of 1977. Democracy, it's certainly not. But China's political culture is not the same as Eastern Europe's during the cold war.
Still, I'm not ready to dismiss Charter 08 as meaningless. As daughter of a professor of modern Chinese history, I found much food for thought in a blog post by historian-blogger Jeremiah Jenne: Cai Yuanpei and Charter 08. A turn-of-the-century Chinese intellectual, Cai was a catalyst for much intellectual and political ferment in his day, though the majority of Chinese at the time never heard of him nor gave a toss. His actions in the short term had no direct relevance or appeal for the majority of Chinese at the time. Eventually however the elite intellectual activities he facilitated contributed to the May Fourth Movement and a major watershed in Chinese history. Jeremiah concludes:
But to dismiss the importance of Charter 08 because it is the product of a single class (or sub-group within that class) is to miss a lesson of history. With a nod to Margaret Mead, I might suggest that modern Chinese history has had its own share of small groups of committed individuals whose ideas did not receive their due when first published or spoken but whom we now look back upon as transformational figures: Wang Tao, Yan Fu, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Sun Yat-sen, Li Dazhao, even Mao Zedong. This is not to say that the authors of Charter 08 are destined to enter such a hallowed pantheon, only that history warns us not to immediately dismiss their ideas because “only” 2000 intellectuals signed the document.
Of the Chinese friends I've spoken with about Charter 08, only those who fall into Roland's category of "enlightened intellectuals" had either heard of the Charter or thought about it very much. As signatory Dai Qing points out, Charter 08 is fairly moderate in that, while it calls for multi-party democracy, it's not a call for immediate revolution. (Note that the Falun Gong have decided not to support it.) That is likely also a reason why only one person involved with Charter 08, Liu Xiaobo, has been arrested despite thousands of signatories - though arresting even one person over such a non-violent and moderate document is unacceptable.
Even among people who agreed with most or all of the Charter's content, many said they felt its impact would be limited because it has no practical component. As one 20-something person who works in publishing put it: "It's performance art. There is no practical strategy for how its goals can be achieved." China is now at Point A. Charter 08 envisions Point B. But how do you get from here to there? There is no proposed plan and no consensus. Most of the people I spoke with who would like China to become a multiparty democracy with independent judiciary some day felt that a sudden overthrow of the current government would not be conducive to greater human rights protections and informed democratic discourse in the long run. (Most Chinese who admit to wanting rapid regime change don't live in China.) Right now, while the current system is corrupt and is failing many of its citizens in the rural areas especially, many pro-democracy intellectuals are concerned that no alternative groups have the governance and leadership capacity, because they've not been able to build that capacity. Plus, a critical mass of business and cultural elites have benefitted materially from their relationships with the current regime, they're proud of the fact that China's economic strength brings them respect around the world, and things would have to get one heck of a lot worse before they'd be interested in facing off against the powers that be.
"It's like we're passengers on a plane that was hijacked in 1949," said one friend. "But if we kill the hijackers, we crash the plane because we don't know how to fly it ourselves. So we have to slowly negotiate." The passengers know that the hijackers don't want to die so that gives some negotiating leverage. Now the passengers have to convince the hijackers that its in their interest to land the plane safely at their desired destination. The problem is, the hijackers won't allow the passengers to vote on the desired destination and some of the people who have emerged as passenger advocates and leaders wonder if it really makes sense to have everybody on the plane vote on their desired destination at this point.
Most people I've spoken with are not particularly optimistic that China will attain the goals outlined in Charter 08 any time soon, and some were skeptical that China ever will. Many felt that the first step is to build platforms that enable the Chinese people to engage in an informed discourse about their future so that concrete solutions and strategies for getting from A to B - or perhaps to some other Point C - can eventually emerge. The Internet is already facilitating a great deal of discourse, despite all the censorship, propaganda, nationalism, manipulation, and cyber-mob behavior. A more constructive discourse would be possible, many argue, if a law could be passed upholding the right of journalists to do their jobs. Thus some people are focusing on building professionalism and improving the quality of Chinese journalism, and trying to push for more media freedoms. Another step, which I heard from many people, was the need to build a stronger sense of citizenship throughout Chinese society: people need to take responsibility for the problems they see around them, and get in the habit of doing what they can to help improve whatever is in their power to improve, however small. Not to change the whole country right away, but to make small changes in their own communities. Efforts by Zhang Shihe aka "Tiger Temple" to raise money to help petitioners and vagrants in Beijing is one small example. Another better known example is the spontaneous relief effort that rose up around the Sichuan earthquake. Finally, there is the heroic work being done by China's growing group of rights-defense lawyers such as Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao, and Liu Xiaoyuan who are doing what they can to educate the public about the rights they are already supposed to have under China's existing laws and constitution, and who are trying to advocate for the upholding of those rights. As Dai Qing told me: "Everybody needs to take responsibility as a citizen, and use their own unique strengths and professional skills to help improve the country in whatever small way we can... We can slowly build the road stone by stone."
Artist Ai Weiwei, who told me he wants to devote all his time to political activity from now on, is one of the few who was optimistic that major change is possible in the near term. (Since he didn't mind speaking completely on the record, I'll be posting longer excerpts from my conversation with him soon.) When I asked him about Charter 08's lack of practical strategy, he replied:
Society needs different people to voice opinions, to voice strategy, to have technical ideas... Its just like in a war, some people blow horns, some shoot the guns, other build the roads. People have different roles. Right? Thomas Jefferson in 1776, when he wrote the Declaration of Independence did he know how to build the road? He had no idea. He simply said that all men are created equal, we need to throw off the shackles of occupation, we need freedom of speech, and that citizens have the right to form their own government. At the time nobody had any idea how to make it happen.
I'm not ready to equate Charter 08 with the Declaration of Independence. Like Charter 77, much of its momentum and appeal had to do with resistance against a foreign colonial force or hegemon. Foreign occupation is no longer one of China's problems - a fact from which the Communist Party derives a lot of its legitimacy. The CCP claims to have played a starring role in solving that one. Few people who went through China's education system are inclined to dispute or question that claim, whatever they think about China's current problems and the reasons for them.
Which brings me back to history, and Jeremiah's blog. His last post marked the 80th anniversary of the death of another historical figure, reformer Liang Qichao. He concludes:
It’s hard to say if the PRC would have met with [Liang's] approval. The founding in 1949 at least fulfilled one of two conditions of political consciousness about which Liang was so optimistic twenty years earlier, “That all who are not Chinese lack the right to control Chinese affairs,” even as the CCP failed (and continues to fail) to fulfill the second, “All Chinese have a right to control Chinese affairs.”
Will the Chinese people accomplish this second condition in the 21st Century? It's possible. How will they do it? Will China will be governed as Charter 08 recommends? Or in some other way that might truly represent the will of the people? Hard to say.
One thing Charter 08 has going for it is that it sets out a clear set of goals. Other than getting rich and having a strong country respected by the world, the CCP has not drawn up a clear alternative narrative for what China's future should look like - beyond more of the same which equals more money at least for those who "get rich first" as Deng liked put it. The CCP has not provided a convincing rebuttal to critics who say that economic development is not sufficient to solve human rights problems, corruption, and growing social inequality, and that the current trajectory is in the long run unsustainable. The leadership effectively asks that the Chinese people continue to have faith in them because there's no alternative. That argument will likely tide things over for while, maybe quite a while still, assisted by censorship, surveillance, and the People's Armed Police. But in the longer run, will they figure out how to evolve in order to fit the Chinese people's growing needs? Or will the CCP eventually be shed like a skin that gets unbearably tight?
Deng saved the CCP from one possible skin-shedding in 1978 by making a major adjustment to the Party's whole basis of legitimacy. It's unclear whether the current crowd has what it takes to pull off the same feat. Meanwhile the skin is getting tighter. Charter 08 is perhaps one of many symptoms. But there are many other symptoms, many of which are better known to ordinary Chinese beyond the "awakened intellectual" class. They include massive groundswell of public sympathy around the case of Yang Jia, who was recently executed for killing six police, and whose mother was spirited away to a mental institution during his appeal. Other symptoms include very specific things like anger about Chinese New Year train ticket management. Another is the Sanlu melamine poisoned milk scandal, in which thousands of babies could have been spared from deadly kidney problems if investigative journalists had been allowed to do their jobs last Spring. The regime is taking bigger hits to its legitimacy from those things than from Charter 08 right now. These are the kinds of things most likely to inspire people to take specific actions... whether those actions will take China in the direction of Charter 08's goals or some other direction, who knows. It's too soon to tell.