It's been ten years since several hundred prominent Chinese intellectuals signed a manifesto calling for democracy and rule of law. But since then, Chinese society has turned more, not less, autocratic, says Perry Link.
In December 2008, ten years ago this month, 303 prominent Chinese intellectuals —leaders in academy, law, civil administration and associations of workers and farmers - signed "Charter 08," a statement of their ideals for moving China toward democracy and the rule of law. Within days, thousands of other Chinese had co-signed the document online.
Now it is painful to look back at the results. In December 2009, the Chinese government sentenced Liu Xiaobo, a key leader in the charter effort, to 11 years in prison for "subversion of state power."
The cruel penalty did bring one happy result — a Nobel Peace Prize for Liu in 2010. But inside China the results were depressing. The charter was expunged from the internet; hundreds of people who had signed it were "invited to tea" by police and told they would "bear all consequences" if they did not withdraw their signatures; Liu Xiaobo was kept in prison with untreated hepatitis until he died of liver cancer in 2017.
Meanwhile, the Chinese society that the charter had wanted to reform turned more, not less, autocratic. The government became more centralized, more dictatorial, more aggressive, and less attentive to human rights and the rule of law. In 2018, the country's dictator, Xi Jinping, engineered a change in China's constitution that removed term limits for Chinese presidents, thus clearing the way, in theory, for him to rule for life if he chose.
Charter 08 had proposed constitutional change. But this move by Xi was in exactly the opposite direction from the ideals of the charter.
I have asked a number of people who were charter leaders ten years ago how they feel about it today. None thought it had achieved its goals.
Some were too dispirited to want to talk. Some said that if they had known the effort was going to be crushed and Liu Xiaobo sentenced to 11 years in prison, they would not have favored doing it. The charter may have been too radical, they said — perhaps China was not yet ready.
Link: 'In broader perspective, the charter should be seen as part of a 40-year series of efforts that the Chinese people have made in trying to throw off the authoritarian blanket that was left upon their society by the rule of Mao Zedong'
Others said no: when a flower was crushed it does not mean it was not originally a flower. "Back then we thought it was a starting point," said one man, who was young at the time and now is nearing middle age. "Now it seems not a starting point but a high point. Too bad. But I'd rather have that high point than have nothing at all."
In broader perspective, the charter should be seen as part of a 40-year series of efforts that the Chinese people have made in trying to throw off the authoritarian blanket that was left upon their society by the rule of Mao Zedong.
Can our lives be ours? Or will they continue to be monitored and controlled from the top? The question arose at Democracy Wall in 1979, and soon after that "single-person entrepreneurs" (the only kind of non-state enterprise allowed at the time) began displaying their answers on the streets.
The government forced Democracy Wall to close, but the ferment continued in quieter ways and by 1989 the streets were jammed — in provincial capitals everywhere, not just in Beijing — by people who were demanding that the authoritarian government get off their necks.
A massacre in Beijing ended those protests, but beginning in 2003 a "support rights" movement, led by idealistic young lawyers greatly aided by the internet, was able to spread the idea that everyone has "rights."
Ordinary workers and even farmers in small villages began to assert their rights. It was around this time that some groups of intellectuals, primarily in Beijing but connected nationwide, began to discuss ideas that eventually came together in the text of Charter 08.
They circulated statements of "our views" (lists of 10, 20, or 30 items, in different versions) for others to consider. The views were not only about political structures but about autonomy in education, civilian control of the military, equality in ethnic relations, protection of the environment, and other topics. The crushing of Charter 08 in 2009 and the mass-arrests of rights lawyers in 2015 showed once again the government's consistent response to such things.
Each popular rising has had its distinct focus, but all of them have sprung in one way or another from the same underlying issue: can we control our own lives?
A veteran of the charter movement told me that he had met a young Chinese — interested in pursuing freedom but unclear about all the past details — who asked him, "Let's see — are you '89 or '08?"
Killing the hope
It is important to understand what those who created the charter thought that it was. It was not a "petition." They were not asking a higher authority to grant them anything. It was more like a manifesto — a statement of principles that they thought would be good for their entire country and that they hoped others would read and agree to.
In the year following the announcement of the charter, from December 2008 to December 2009, its supporters felt that they basically had won. It was true that Liu Xiaobo had disappeared, but no one else had been detained for more than a day or two, and guesses about how long Liu's sentence might be ranged from three to five years or so.
Some thought he would simply be chastised and sent home on parole. Charter-signatories around the country had been called to police stations for chats, but that was not enough to kill the hope that the government might be considering genuine dialogue, perhaps even a system of ongoing dialogue.
Until, of course, the killing did come. The announcement of an 11-year prison sentence for Liu Xiaobo and the deep freeze that followed sent the government's message of "No more! No way!"
Authorities never named exactly what it was in the charter that most upset them. But all speculation is that the crucial issue was the Communist Party's monopoly of power. One sentence in the charter had said, "We must abolish the special privilege of one party to monopolize power."
Another, in consideration of national minorities, had suggested a name-change for the government to a "federated republic" of China.
And then there was the problem that for the government to recognize the charter-signatories — whatever they called themselves — would mean that, for the first time in its history, it would be accepting the legitimacy of an organization that the Communist Party did not directly or indirectly control.
That would not do. The "dialogue" the charter people had in mind was, at bottom, power-sharing. The Communist Party of China does not share power.
Politics will need to change
In the background, Party leaders saw 2008 as an important year for reasons much larger than the tussle over Charter 08. The Beijing Summer Olympics had been a huge success. Their international prestige, at least in their own view, had soared. Meanwhile, a severe financial crisis in the heart of the global adversary — the United States — magnified their relative position on the world stage.
To sweep up Charter 08 seemed like little more than housekeeping. In his later years Deng Xiaoping had counseled that China "hide its strength and bide its time," but by the end of 2008 that advice seemed a bit out of date. In the years since the massacre in 1989, the Party had promoted the argument that democracy takes a long time, that China is a big country, and that the "cultural level" of the people is low — so the world should be patient. The premise of this argument was that political democracy is the ultimate goal.
After 2008, however, that premise disappeared. Now China's rulers were presenting their authoritarian system, a "meritocracy" that can get things done, as a new model for the world. It was the bad luck of Charter 08 to appear right when this crucial pivot was underway.
Some have pointed out that Xi, in turning back toward Mao, has betrayed the spirit of Deng Xiaoping, the strong leader who promoted "reform and opening" in the 1980s. There is some truth in that claim, but only some. Deng's major contribution was the formula "economic change, yes; political change, no" — and that iron framework has remained in place for all of Deng's successors, including Xi.
In order for China to advance and fully join the modern world, politics will need to change, too. The aim of Charter 08 was to aid in that transition. Ten years ago, when the mild and broad-based charter was proffered, it might have done some good. Today, in Xi's world — proto-fascist and unstable at the same time — the prospects for such ideas are much weaker.
China scholar Perry Link is Chancellorial Chair Professor for Innovative Teaching Comparative Literature & Foreign Languages in College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, and Emeritus Professor of Asian Studies at Princeton University.
The author thanks Su Xiaokang and Chang Ping for some of the ideas in this piece.