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In China, a Grass-Roots Rebellion
"The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave," Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu warned China's leaders this month, according to state media.
Charter 08 lays out a comprehensive overhaul of the current political system by ending one-party rule and introducing freedom of speech, an independent court system and direct elections. It is modeled after Charter 77, which was put together by scholars and demanded rights for Czechoslovakia in 1977, preceding the collapse of communism by 12 years.
"The Chinese government's approach to 'modernization' has proven disastrous," the document states. "It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity and corrupted normal human intercourse. So we ask: Where is China headed in the twenty-first century?"
At the heart of the document is a call for rewriting the country's constitution to emphasize freedom.
"Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals," the document states.
The evolution of Charter 08 is being closely monitored outside China to see how far the government will go to squelch it.
China's No. 4 official, Jia Qinglin, warned in the party's theoretical journal Qiu Shi in mid-January that the country should "build a defensive line against interference by incorrect Western thinking." Jia dismissed the ideas of a multiparty system and separation of powers as erroneous.
At Beijing University's law school, students who are party members have been warned not to get involved with Charter 08, as have researchers at the country's top government-funded research group, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
At least one man -- Liu Xiaobo, 53, a literary critic and dissident who spent 20 months in jail for joining student protesters in Tiananmen Square -- has been detained on suspicion of being one of Charter 08's organizers. His detention prompted an international outcry. Writers including Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood have called for Liu's release.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States was "deeply concerned by reports that Chinese citizens have been detained, interrogated and harassed" since the document was posted. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao has responded that Washington should stop interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries.
Other prominent people who have signed the document include Ai Weiwei, son of Ai Qing, a famous pro-government poet well-known for his art and architecture. He Guanghu, a professor of religion at People's University who specializes in Christianity, also signed, as did Bao Tong, formerly a high-ranking party member.
Mao Yushi, 80, an economist who is credited with helping to keep the government on a path of market-oriented reforms, has publicly said that while he has not signed the document, he gave advice to its drafters and supports it.