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Charter 08 worries China

Police have detained activists behind the democracy petition, which has drawn diverse support.

By Jonathan AdamsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2009

Manifesto: Zhang Zuhua, a drafter of Charter 08, has been detained twice in one month. Websites publishing the document calling for democracy have been blocked.

Jonathan Adams

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Beijing

On Dec. 8, the police took Zhang Zuhua into a room in Beijing and sat him in a chair.

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For 12 hours, they questioned him. They brought him water, but no food. And they debated the document that had led him here: Charter 08, a call for sweeping political change in China.

It's gotten to be an old story here: A clutch of activists challenges the government; the government jails one or two to scare others into silence.

But the movement around Charter 08 is different, say human rights groups and Mr. Zhang, who helped draft the document.

A month after its release, Charter 08 is still making waves in China. A wide cross-section of citizens has expressed support online. And the government, nervous about social unrest and the approaching anniversary of Tiananmen Square, has contacted – and in some cases, interrogated and threatened – at least dozens of the manifesto's original signers.

"This text is having a lot of impact – people are debating and signing it online," says Nicholas Bequelin, China researcher for Human Rights Watch. "This is a landmark in terms of its appeal, and [the] attention that it has provoked."

Charter 08 calls for an end to one-party authoritarian rule and lays out a vision for a rights-based society – an electoral democracy, under the rule of law, with equality for peasants and city-dwellers and protected freedoms of speech and expression.

Similar calls have been made before; all have failed to weaken the Chinese Communist Party's grip on power. But activists say this manifesto is significant in several respects.

First, thousands of citizens of all backgrounds – peasants, teenage netizens, prominent lawyers, former party members – have added their names to the petition, not just the usual gadflies. They reflect a minority unwilling to accept the party's vision for China.

Second, the Internet has vastly expanded the charter's reach, with no central organization. That makes it a new kind of threat to a government concerned about organized challenges to its rule.

"It's a testament to the power of the Internet," says Joshua Rosenzweig, of the Dui Hua Foundation, a group that promotes human rights in China. "[It's] allowed Charter 08 to galvanize and bring together a lot of people from different walks of life and locations."

Meanwhile, the government has gone after key players behind the document. Liu Xiaobo, a coauthor of Charter 08, was detained on Dec. 8, the eve of the charter's scheduled publication online. He is being held by authorities at a Beijing hotel, according to Human Rights Watch.

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