Editorial -- Charter 2008, China's Democratic Manifesto

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

CHINA'S Communist regime spent much of this year selling itself to the world as a rising power that offers an alternative to the democratic capitalism of the West. Its symbol is the Beijing Olympics, for which stadiums were built, crowds orchestrated and events staged with brutish efficiency -- even as political dissidents and unsightly poor people were jailed or exiled from Beijing. But Olympics China is not the only forward-looking vision of the country, as a group of more than 300 intellectuals, journalists, rural activists and artists made clear last week. Their manifesto, Charter 2008, sketches a free and democratic China where human rights, democracy and the rule of law are paramount. While it might seem less formidable than the Bird's Nest Stadium, our long-run bet is on the charter.

According to Perry Link, a University of California professor who translated the document into English, the authors were inspired by Charter 77 of Czechoslovakia, a similar movement of intellectuals that articulated an alternative to Soviet-style communism nearly 32 years ago. Persecuted by their government and ignored by much of the world, the adherents of Charter 77 persisted for more than a dozen years; when communism collapsed, Charter 77's best-known leader, Vaclav Havel, became the newly democratic country's first president. The Chinese group has gotten off to a similar start: One of its leaders, Liu Xiaobo, was arrested last week, and other signatories have been detained and harassed. The movement is nevertheless gaining strength. According to Chinese bloggers, the number of signatories has risen into the thousands during the past few days.

The document bluntly refutes the idea that China offers a global political alternative. Instead, it argues that China is "the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics." The result, it says, is that "our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby constricting China's own development but also limiting the progress of all human civilization." Charter 2008 spells out 19 steps for reform, including a new constitution, freedom of speech and assembly, an independent judiciary and democratic elections for all levels of government.

Those aspirations will sound to many as far-fetched as Charter 77 did for a dozen years. The Chinese dissidents may appear as isolated as the courageous Russian activists who over the weekend founded a new democratic alliance called Solidarity -- after the Polish movement that ended communist rule in that country. But the new groups have the same powerful and frequently underestimated weapon: What they advocate, as Charter 2008 puts it, is to "embrace universal human values [and] join the mainstream of civilized nations." That's an offer that ever more Russians and Chinese are likely to find preferable to 21st-century dictatorships.

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