In China, a Grass-Roots Rebellion

"I was afraid, but I had already signed it hundreds of times in my heart," blogger Tang Xiaozhao said about deciding to sign Charter 08. (By Ariana Eunjung Cha -- The Washington Post)
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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 29, 2009

SHANGHAI -- When Tang Xiaozhao first saw a copy of the pro-democracy petition in her e-mail inbox, she silently acknowledged she agreed with everything in it but didn't want to get involved.

Tang, a pigtailed, 30-something cosmetology major, had never considered herself the activist type. Like many other Chinese citizens, she kept a blog where she wrote about current events and her life, but she wasn't political.

A few days later, however, Tang surprised herself. She logged on to her computer and signed the document by sending her full name, location and occupation to a special e-mail address.

"I was afraid, but I had already signed it hundreds of times in my heart," Tang said in an interview.

Hers is the 3,943rd signature on the list that has swelled to more than 8,100 from across China. Although their numbers are still small, those signing the document, and the broad spectrum from which they come, have made the human rights manifesto, known as Charter 08, a significant marker in the demands for democracy in China, one of the few sustained campaigns since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Those who sign the charter risk arrest and punishment.

When the document first appeared online in mid-December, its impact was limited. Many of the original signers were lawyers, writers and other intellectuals who had long been known for their pro-democracy stance. The Chinese government moved quickly to censor the charter -- putting those suspected of having written it under surveillance, interrogating those who had signed, and deleting any mention of it from the Internet behind its great firewall.

Then something unusual happened. Ordinary people such as Tang with no history of challenging the government began to circulate the document and declare themselves supporters. The list now includes scholars, journalists, computer technicians, businessmen, teachers and students whose names had not been associated with such movements before, as well as some on the lower rungs of China's social hierarchy -- factory and construction workers and farmers.

"This is the first time that anyone other than the Communist Party has put in written form in a public document a political vision for China," said Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, a human rights activist and director of the China Internet Project, which monitors conversation on China's vast network of electronic bulletin-board systems, blogs and Web sites. "It's dangerous to be associated with dissidents, so in the past, other, ordinary people have not signed such documents. But this time it is different. It has become a citizens' movement."

The party in China maintains a monopoly on power, but its authority is now being challenged in the charter and on a number of other philosophical fronts.

On Jan. 13, a group of more than 20 Chinese intellectuals signed an open letter calling for a boycott of state television news programs because of what they said is systematic bias and brainwashing, and separately, a Beijing newspaper ran a commentary that argued that freedom of speech is written into the constitution and that the authorities cannot solely decide whether something is "absurd versus not, or progressive versus reactionary."

On Jan. 7, a prominent Chinese lawyer, Yan Yiming, went to the Finance Ministry and filed an application demanding that it open to the public its 2008 and 2009 budget books, including information about its $586 billion economic stimulus plan. "Our government must exercise its power in the open sunlight," Yan wrote.

And early this month, the editors of the newspaper Southern Weekend echoed text from Charter 08 but did not directly refer to it when the paper expressed worry about the future of the state and said it supports "progress, democracy, freedom, human rights."

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