Beijing blinks at 'Charter '08'

When so many intellectuals sign a manifesto for democracy, the regime sweats.

What doesn't happen in China often counts for more than what does. Take Beijing's response to a manifesto, issued Dec. 10 by more than 300 Chinese intellectuals, that demands human rights and democracy in China. So far, only one signer, Liu Xiaobo, has been jailed. Does this mean the brave dissidents will soon get their wish?

Hardly. But the Communist Party's hesitancy to crack down harshly on the scholars, lawyers, engineers, and others who issued the so-called "Charter 08" document sends a subtle signal of hope.

The party could be afraid that it is losing a key conceptual debate with the people over the best way to rule China, especially at a time of rising revolts by workers and peasants during an economic slowdown.

The secretive rulers may have decided to ignore this open dissent by a respected, unified group rather than draw attention to their ideas by applying an iron fist. The party has at least learned something from its 1989 massacre of pro-democracy Tiananmen protesters.

One result of Beijing's apparent lenience is that thousands more prominent Chinese have come out in support of the 4,000-word document, which articulates democratic principles and 19 reforms.

The heart of China's big debate is whether values such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary are universal to humanity or merely Western.

The manifesto asks Chinese leaders to "embrace universal human values [and] join the mainstream of civilized nations." It debunks the party's idea that the country needs only a Chinese-style political system – defined by the party – and that the current system, by offering stability and rising wealth over the past three decades, is a worthy alternative for other countries to emulate.

These dissidents point out that China is "the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics."

The result? "By departing from these [universal] 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," states the Charter 08 document.

The model for this manifesto was Czechoslovakia's "Charter 77," issued in 1977 by that country's intellectuals with principles for an elected, noncommunist government. Twelve years later, the Iron Curtain fell, in large part because of such calls for freedom in Eastern Europe.

Charter 08 predicts upheaval if China fails to adopt the kind of democracy that can channel the rising demands of people who feel officials don't heed them. The Communist Party, however, is still stuck in a post-Mao strategy that it can stay in power as long as it provides the means for people to become rich.

For more than two decades, that strategy has survived. But such materialism is a weak bamboo shoot for anyone to lean on, let alone 1.3 billion people.

In the Chinese philosophy of Tao, it is the soft things of life that overcome the hardest. The quiet courage of China's thought-leaders in issuing a 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.

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