It was signed by 2,000 brave and quixotic Chinese in December – and then seemed to be quashed. But no: It is gaining traction on the Internet; even some Chinese officials have raised the question of democracy and the party's absolute hold on power.
Lin Zhao asked the same question – in the time of Mao Zedong. I discovered Ms. Lin – an extraordinary individual by any reckoning – in my last months as a Monitor correspondent in Beijing. She was a prophetic voice, a thinker, a Vaclav Havel of China who believed deeply in the reality of what she called "truth."
She was executed in 1968 at the age of 36, probably by the order of Mao. She remains virtually unknown in her country.
Lin's main insight was that Mao, to put it mildly, was not serving the people. Her prison writings during the Cultural Revolution may constitute the most incisive critique of "Red China" extant; they remain forbidden, kept under lock and key at a Beijing archive.
"She was rehabilitated in the late 1970s, during a thaw, but I don't think [today] she would be," the intellectual Li Datong told me. "In her day, Lin alone marked Mao as a big rotten egg, so she was way ahead of her time. Hers was the deepest accusation of the Communist Party written in the 60 years of its history. So this government will make sure we never hear from her fully."
Lin's story is about modern China's conscience and soul. It raises questions about the future, as do the Charter 08 authors: "Where is China headed in the 21st century? Will it continue … 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."
But despite China's stunning progress, they, like Lin, have been avoided.
A trip to Suzhou
Had I learned of Lin earlier in my assignment, it would have been difficult to see how unusual she was – what it took for a frail young woman to remain so tough, so "pure," as her admirers call her. But while I was on a visit to Suzhou, Lin's birthplace, to do a story on China's passion for the Yangtze Delta hairy crabs, a Chinese friend filled me in.
He had just seen an underground film, "Searching for Lin Zhao's Soul," by director Hu Jie, who eluded the police for years in order to finish it.
Lin's father was educated in England. She was the top pupil in her province, and, at age 16, a committed revolutionary, saying, "I have only a Red Star in my heart."
At Peking University, she edited the campus literary magazine "Red Mansions." A quick wit and a strange incandescence made her attractive to nearly everyone. (Later, professors, doctors, and prison officials all tried to protect her, some losing their lives.)
But as China's intellectuals disappeared in Mao's antirightist "100 Flowers" campaign, after being encouraged to be critical, she soured.
"What I hate most is deception," she said.
Lin witnessed the Great Leap Forward, when millions died from starvation, though China was exporting grain. She thought Mao's program "insanity." Lin turned to Christianity. She criticized through poems such as "A Day of Suffering for Prometheus." In it, Zeus asks Prometheus, the god who brings fire to humans, "Is your head made of granite?" Prometheus says, "No, but it is protected by truth."
She had a relentless, stubborn quality that is a certain Chinese type – like the young teacher in Zhang Yimou's film "Not One Less." Or perhaps like the solitary young man who, 20 years ago this June, faced down a line of tanks in the famous Tiananmen video.
Now, thanks to Philip Pan of The Washington Post, we know more. Mr. Pan devotes two chapters to Lin in his recent "Out of Mao's Shadow," and tells the compelling story of Mr. Hu, the director. (Read the Monitor's review of "Out of Mao's Shadow" here .)
Hu's research on Lin opened up a history that the documentary filmmaker had never encountered in any Chinese school or book.
Hu saw that the antirightist campaign was "a turning point in Chinese history," as Pan tells it. "The moment when the party reneged on its promise to allow a more democratic political process."
My encounter with Lin formed two questions as I left China. First, must China confront past misdeeds to reach civil reform? Or is there a process hidden in China's tumultuous daily striving that will adjust things?
Second, can Beijing's unstated policy of "gradualism" – slow and stable change – be reconciled with "radical" hopes of those like Lin Zhao, or today's Charter 08 group, one of whose authors, Liu Xiaobo, remains in police detention?
"If China can't reflect on its own behavior, that is not good for the future. If we can't deal with the Cultural Revolution, how are we going to ever let people learn about basic civil rights? Modernization and civil rights go hand in hand."
No honesty about the past
China today is far from the China of Lin Zhao and the Cultural Revolution. That's plain at a time we talk about a "G-2," the US and China. Yet ahead of Tiananmen's 20th anniversary, the party still forbids honesty about its past, including Tiananmen – a moment when China decided to forgo political modernity for economic reform.
They say history is written by the winners. True?
After Lin's final sham trial in Shanghai, she wrote, "This is an extremely reprehensible and shameful judgment … but just watch! The court of history will proclaim a verdict for future generations. Justice will prevail!" She was shot, and her mother charged 5 cents for the bullet.
Last month, a senior party official, Yu Keping, advocated "incremental democracy characterized by some sort of radical reform" in a magazine published by the state news agency, Xinhua.
What that means, and whether efforts like Charter 08 will continue to stir China, is hard to know. The questions are still being asked. To paraphrase former Premier Zhou Enlai's famed comment on the American Revolution, many verdicts are still out.