China’s Best Hope

2008 will not be remembered chiefly for noble or heroic acts. Yet, amidst the news reports over the past few months of financial fraud, bloodshed in India and Gaza, and global economic disasters, one item stood out for its bravery and nobility. On December 10, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, more than 300 Chinese citizens, ranging from law professors to businessmen, farmers, and even some government officials, put their names to a remarkable document, entitled Charter 08.

The signatories, later joined by thousands more, asked where China was heading in the twenty-first century: “Will it continue with ‘modernization’ under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system?” 

There is nothing incendiary about Charter 08, no call for violent rebellion, no thirst for revenge or retribution. It merely asks for what citizens of all liberal democracies take for granted: the right to question government policies, protection of human rights, an independent judiciary, and multi-party elections.

The model for Charter 08 was Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77. In 1977, several prominent signatories, such as Václav Havel, were arrested as a result. Likewise, one of the bravest, most lucid Chinese intellectuals, Liu Xiaobo, was arrested in December for signing Charter 08, and has yet to be released. Other signers have been interrogated and harassed.