Daniel W. Drezner

What does Charter 08 tell us about China in 09?

What does Charter 08 tell us about China in 09?

Last month 303 prominent Chinese intellectuals signed Charter 08, a document consciously designed to evoke Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77. The content of the charter itself, as well as the government’s reaction to it, can provide a few hints about what to expect from the Middle Kingdom this year.

Reading the two charters back-to-back is revealing. The Czech document was clear in detailing the repressive nature of the government, but ended on a conciliatory note: "It does not aim, then, to set out its own programmes for political or social reforms or changes, but within its own sphere of activity it wishes to conduct a constructive dialogue with the political and state authorities."

Charter 08, in contrast, says nothing about dialogue. The charter does say quite a bit about the nature of Beijing’s regime:

In 1998 the Chinese government signed two important international human rights conventions; in 2004 it amended its constitution to include the phrase "respect and protect human rights"; and this year, 2008, it has promised to promote a "national human rights action plan." Unfortunately most of this political progress has extended no further than the paper on which it is written. The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law; it has a constitution but no constitutional government. The ruling elite continues to cling to its authoritarian power and fights off any move toward political change.

The stultifying results are endemic official corruption, an undermining of the rule of law, weak human rights, decay in public ethics, crony capitalism, growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor, pillage of the natural environment as well as of the human and historical environments, and the exacerbation of a long list of social conflicts, especially, in recent times, a sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people.

The document then goes on to offer a concrete program for political and social reform. It’s an ambitious list. These Chartists are not only asking for political and civil liberties. They also want private property rights, separation of powers, a federated republic, social security, and environmental protection.

The tone of the document also makes it clear that these Chartists do not expect to achieve their goals not through a constructive dialogue. Instead, they appear to be banking on a mass social movement that forces the government in Beijing to capitulate to its demands.

According to the New York Times Book Review‘s Perry Link, "Chinese authorities were apparently unaware of [Charter 08] or unconcerned by it until several days before it was announced on December 10." This might explain their initial reaction, which, by Beijing’s standards, was relatively tame. As Charter 08 picked up more online signatures, however, the government’s reaction has hardened. The government is also upgrading the software it uses to censor the Internet on issues like this.

So, it would appear that the Chinese government and the Charter 08 dissidents do agree on one thing: a dialogue between the two sides is not going to happen. Absent that option, will there be a mass social movement. Could it topple the communist government?

Authoritarian governments always look like they can maintain their grip on power — right up until the moment that the coercive apparatus falls apart. Beijing’s coercive apparatus has a track record of not falling apart, so the smart money might be on the government. Still, as industrial production in the country continues to tank, the implicit social compact trading political quiescence for rapid economic growth appears to be cracking.

Furthermore, the dissidents are getting cheekier. In addition to Charter 08, China’s highest-ranking dissident, Bao Tong, just leveled a broadside against Deng Xiaoping, timed to disrupt the regime’s 30th anniversary celebration of the economic reforms launched by Deng. 2009 also marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests/crackdown — and the Chinese love to mark anniversaries.

Question to readers: is 2009 the year that China’s government collapses? Or is it just another year in which there will be a crackdown of a mass uprising? Because those may be the only two options.