hundred years have passed since the writing of China’s first
constitution. 2008 also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the
promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the
thirtieth anniversary of the appearance of the Democracy Wall in
Beijing, and the tenth of China’s signing of the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights. We are approaching the twentieth
anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy student
protesters. The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters
and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who
see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal
values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are
the fundamental framework for protecting these values.
departing from these values, the Chinese government’s approach to
“modernization” has proven disastrous. 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? 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 can be no avoiding these
shock of the Western impact upon China in the nineteenth century laid
bare a decadent authoritarian system and marked the beginning of what
is often called “the greatest changes in thousands of years” for China.
A “self-strengthening movement” followed, but this aimed simply at
appropriating the technology to build gunboats and other Western
material objects. China’s humiliating naval defeat at the hands of
Japan in 1895 only confirmed the obsolescence of China’s system of
government. The first attempts at modern political change came with the
ill-fated summer of reforms in 1898, but these were cruelly crushed by
ultraconservatives at China’s imperial court. With the revolution of
1911, which inaugurated Asia’s first republic, the authoritarian
imperial system that had lasted for centuries was finally supposed to
have been laid to rest. But social conflict inside our country and
external pressures were to prevent it; China fell into a patchwork of
warlord fiefdoms and the new republic became a fleeting dream.
failure of both “self- strengthening” and political renovation caused
many of our forebears to reflect deeply on whether a “cultural illness”
was afflicting our country. This mood gave rise, during the May Fourth
Movement of the late 1910s, to the championing of “science and
democracy.” Yet that effort, too, foundered as warlord chaos persisted
and the Japanese invasion [beginning in Manchuria in 1931] brought
over Japan in 1945 offered one more chance for China to move toward
modern government, but the Communist defeat of the Nationalists in the
civil war thrust the nation into the abyss of totalitarianism. The “new
China” that emerged in 1949 proclaimed that “the people are sovereign”
but in fact set up a system in which “the Party is all-powerful.” The
Communist Party of China seized control of all organs of the state and
all political, economic, and social resources, and, using these, has
produced a long trail of human rights disasters, including, among many
others, the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957), the Great Leap Forward
(1958–1960), the Cultural Revolution (1966–1969), the June Fourth
[Tiananmen Square] Massacre (1989), and the current repression of all
unauthorized religions and the suppression of the weiquan rights
movement [a movement that aims to defend citizens’ rights promulgated
in the Chinese Constitution and to fight for human rights recognized by
international conventions that the Chinese government has signed].
During all this, the Chinese people have paid a gargantuan price. Tens
of millions have lost their lives, and several generations have seen
their freedom, their happiness, and their human dignity cruelly
the last two decades of the twentieth century the government policy of
“Reform and Opening” gave the Chinese people relief from the pervasive
poverty and totalitarianism of the Mao Zedong era, and brought
substantial increases in the wealth and living standards of many
Chinese as well as a partial restoration of economic freedom and
economic rights. Civil society began to grow, and popular calls for
more rights and more political freedom have grown apace. As the ruling
elite itself moved toward private ownership and the market economy, it
began to shift from an outright rejection of “rights” to a partial
acknowledgment of them.
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.
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.
these conflicts and crises grow ever more intense, and as the ruling
elite continues with impunity to crush and to strip away the rights of
citizens to freedom, to property, and to the pursuit of happiness, we
see the powerless in our society—the vulnerable groups, the people who
have been suppressed and monitored, who have suffered cruelty and even
torture, and who have had no adequate avenues for their protests, no
courts to hear their pleas—becoming more militant and raising the
possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions. The
decline of the current system has reached the point where change is no
II. Our Fundamental Principles
is a historic moment for China, and our future hangs in the balance.
In reviewing the political modernization process of the past hundred
years or more, we reiterate and endorse basic universal values as
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.
Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with
inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the
protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state
power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political
disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the
ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.
The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person—regardless of
social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin
color, religion, or political belief—are the same as those of any
other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social,
economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.
Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among
different branches of government and competing interests should be
served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of “fairness
in all under heaven.” It allows different interest groups and social
assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to
exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach
peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to
government and free and fair competition.
The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are
sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these
characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the
legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is
exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of
major official posts in government at all levels are determined through
periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the
majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of
minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for
achieving government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the
Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal
regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a
constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of
citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government
power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve
III. What We Advocate
is in general decline throughout the world; in China, too, the era of
emperors and overlords is on the way out. The time is arriving
everywhere for citizens to be masters of states. For China the path that
leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the
authoritarian notion of reliance on an “enlightened overlord” or an
“honest official” and to turn instead toward a system of liberties,
democracy, and the rule of law, and toward fostering the consciousness
of modern citizens who see rights as fundamental and participation as a
duty. Accordingly, and in a spirit of this duty as responsible and
constructive citizens, we offer the following recommendations on
national governance, citizens’ rights, and social development:
- A New Constitution.
We should recast our present constitution, rescinding its provisions
that contradict the principle that sovereignty resides with the people
and turning it into a document that genuinely guarantees human rights,
authorizes the exercise of public power, and serves as the legal
underpinning of China’s democratization. The constitution must be the
highest law in the land, beyond violation by any individual, group, or
- Separation of Powers.
We should construct a modern government in which the separation of
legislative, judicial, and executive power is guaranteed. We need an
Administrative Law that defines the scope of government responsibility
and prevents abuse of administrative power. Government should be
responsible to taxpayers. Division of power between provincial
governments and the central government should adhere to the principle
that central powers are only those specifically granted by the
constitution and all other powers belong to the local governments.
- Legislative Democracy. Members of
legislative bodies at all levels should be chosen by direct election,
and legislative democracy should observe just and impartial principles.
- An Independent Judiciary.
The rule of law must be above the interests of any particular
political party and judges must be independent. We need to establish a
constitutional supreme court and institute procedures for
constitutional review. As soon as possible, we should abolish all of
the Committees on Political and Legal Affairs that now allow Communist
Party officials at every level to decide politically sensitive cases in
advance and out of court. We should strictly forbid the use of public
offices for private purposes.
- Public Control of Public Servants.
The military should be made answerable to the national government, not
to a political party, and should be made more professional. Military
personnel should swear allegiance to the constitution and remain
nonpartisan. Political party organizations must be prohibited in the
military. All public officials including police should serve as
nonpartisans, and the current practice of favoring one political party
in the hiring of public servants must end.
- Guarantee of Human Rights.
There must be strict guarantees of human rights and respect for human
dignity. There should be a Human Rights Committee, responsible to the
highest legislative body, that will prevent the government from abusing
public power in violation of human rights. A democratic and
constitutional China especially must guarantee the personal freedom of
citizens. No one should suffer illegal arrest, detention, arraignment,
interrogation, or punishment. The system of “Reeducation through Labor”
must be abolished.
- Election of Public Officials.
There should be a comprehensive system of democratic elections based
on “one person, one vote.” The direct election of administrative heads
at the levels of county, city, province, and nation should be
systematically implemented. The rights to hold periodic free elections
and to participate in them as a citizen are inalienable.
- Rural–Urban Equality.
The two-tier household registry system must be abolished. This system
favors urban residents and harms rural residents. We should establish
instead a system that gives every citizen the same constitutional
rights and the same freedom to choose where to live.
- Freedom to Form Groups.
The right of citizens to form groups must be guaranteed. The current
system for registering nongovernment groups, which requires a group to
be “approved,” should be replaced by a system in which a group simply
registers itself. The formation of political parties should be governed
by the constitution and the laws, which means that we must abolish the
special privilege of one party to monopolize power and must guarantee
principles of free and fair competition among political parties.
- Freedom to Assemble.
The constitution provides that peaceful assembly, demonstration,
protest, and freedom of expression are fundamental rights of a citizen.
The ruling party and the government must not be permitted to subject
these to illegal interference or unconstitutional obstruction.
- Freedom of Expression.
We should make freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and academic
freedom universal, thereby guaranteeing that citizens can be informed
and can exercise their right of political supervision. These freedoms
should be upheld by a Press Law that abolishes political restrictions
on the press. The provision in the current Criminal Law that refers to
“the crime of incitement to subvert state power” must be abolished. We
should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.
- Freedom of Religion.
We must guarantee freedom of religion and belief, and institute a
separation of religion and state. There must be no governmental
interference in peaceful religious activities. We should abolish any
laws, regulations, or local rules that limit or suppress the religious
freedom of citizens. We should abolish the current system that requires
religious groups (and their places of worship) to get official
approval in advance and substitute for it a system in which registry is
optional and, for those who choose to register, automatic.
- Civic Education. In our schools we
should abolish political curriculums and examinations that are
designed to indoctrinate students in state ideology and to instill
support for the rule of one party. We should replace them with civic
education that advances universal values and citizens’ rights, fosters
civic consciousness, and promotes civic virtues that serve society.
- Protection of Private Property.
We should establish and protect the right to private property and
promote an economic system of free and fair markets. We should do away
with government monopolies in commerce and industry and guarantee the
freedom to start new enterprises. We should establish a Committee on
State-Owned Property, reporting to the national legislature, that will
monitor the transfer of state-owned enterprises to private ownership in
a fair, competitive, and orderly manner. We should institute a land
reform that promotes private ownership of land, guarantees the right to
buy and sell land, and allows the true value of private property to be
adequately reflected in the market.
- Financial and Tax Reform. We
should establish a democratically regulated and accountable system of
public finance that ensures the protection of taxpayer rights and that
operates through legal procedures. We need a system by which public
revenues that belong to a certain level of government—central,
provincial, county or local—are controlled at that level. We need major
tax reform that will abolish any unfair taxes, simplify the tax
system, and spread the tax burden fairly. Government officials should
not be able to raise taxes, or institute new ones, without public
deliberation and the approval of a democratic assembly. We should
reform the ownership system in order to encourage competition among a
wider variety of market participants.
- Social Security. We should
establish a fair and adequate social security system that covers all
citizens and ensures basic access to education, health care, retirement
security, and employment.
- Protection of the Environment.
We need to protect the natural environment and to promote development
in a way that is sustainable and responsible to our descendants and to
the rest of humanity. This means insisting that the state and its
officials at all levels not only do what they must do to achieve these
goals, but also accept the supervision and participation of
- A Federated Republic.
A democratic China should seek to act as a responsible major power
contributing toward peace and development in the Asian Pacific region
by approaching others in a spirit of equality and fairness. In Hong
Kong and Macao, we should support the freedoms that already exist. With
respect to Taiwan, we should declare our commitment to the principles
of freedom and democracy and then, negotiating as equals and ready to
compromise, seek a formula for peaceful unification. We should approach
disputes in the national-minority areas of China with an open mind,
seeking ways to find a workable framework within which all ethnic and
religious groups can flourish. We should aim ultimately at a federation
of democratic communities of China.
- Truth in Reconciliation.
We should restore the reputations of all people, including their
family members, who suffered political stigma in the political
campaigns of the past or who have been labeled as criminals because of
their thought, speech, or faith. The state should pay reparations to
these people. All political prisoners and prisoners of conscience must
be released. There should be a Truth Investigation Commission charged
with finding the facts about past injustices and atrocities,
determining responsibility for them, upholding justice, and, on these
bases, seeking social reconciliation.
as a major nation of the world, as one of five permanent members of
the United Nations Security Council, and as a member of the UN
Council on Human Rights, should be contributing to peace for humankind
and progress toward human rights. Unfortunately, we stand today as the
only country among the major nations that remains mired in
authoritarian politics. Our political system continues to produce human
rights disasters and social crises, thereby not only constricting
China’s own development but also limiting the progress of all of human
civilization. This must change, truly it must. The democratization of
Chinese politics can be put off no longer.
we dare to put civic spirit into practice by announcing Charter 08. We
hope that our fellow citizens who feel a similar sense of crisis,
responsibility, and mission, whether they are inside the government or
not, and regardless of their social status, will set aside small
differences to embrace the broad goals of this citizens’ movement.
Together we can work for major changes in Chinese society and for the
rapid establishment of a free, democratic, and constitutional country.
We can bring to reality the goals and ideals that our people have
incessantly been seeking for more than a hundred years, and can bring a
brilliant new chapter to Chinese civilization.
- - -Postscript
The planning and drafting of Charter 08 began in the late spring of
2008, but Chinese authorities were apparently unaware of it or
unconcerned by it until several days before it was announced on December
10. On December 6, Wen Kejian, a writer who signed the charter, was
detained in the city of Hangzhou in eastern China and questioned for
about an hour. Police told Wen that Charter 08 was “different” from
earlier dissident statements, and “a fairly grave matter.” They said
there would be a coordinated investigation in all cities and provinces
to “root out the organizers,” and they advised Wen to remove his name
from the charter. Wen declined, telling the authorities that he saw the
charter as a fundamental turning point in history.
Meanwhile, on December 8, in Shenzhen in the far south of China, police
called on Zhao Dagong, a writer and signer of the charter, for a “chat.”
They told Zhao that the central authorities were concerned about the
charter and asked if he was the organizer in the Shenzhen area.
Later on December 8, at 11 PM in Beijing, about twenty police entered
the home of Zhang Zuhua, one of the charter’s main drafters. A few of
the police took Zhang with them to the local police station while the
rest stayed and, as Zhang’s wife watched, searched the home and
confiscated books, notebooks, Zhang’s passport, all four of the family’s
computers, and all of their cash and credit cards. (Later Zhang learned
that his family’s bank accounts, including those of both his and his
wife’s parents, had been emptied.) Meanwhile, at the police station,
Zhang was detained for twelve hours, where he was questioned in detail
about Charter 08 and the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders in which
he is active.
It was also late on December 8 that another of the charter’s signers,
the literary critic and prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo, was taken away
by police. His telephone in Beijing went unanswered, as did e-mail and
Skype messages sent to him. As of the present writing, he’s believed to
be in police custody, although the details of his detention are not
On the morning of December 9, Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was called in
for a police “chat,” and in the evening the physicist and philosopher
Jiang Qisheng was called in as well. Both had signed the charter and
were friends of the drafters. On December 10—the day the charter was
formally announced—the Hangzhou police returned to the home of Wen
Kejian, the writer they had questioned four days earlier. This time they
were more threatening. They told Wen he would face severe punishment if
he wrote about the charter or about Liu Xiaobo’s detention. “Do you
want three years in prison?” they asked. “Or four?”
On December 11 the journalist Gao Yu and the writer Liu Di, both
well-known in Beijing, were interrogated about their signing of the
Charter. The rights lawyer, Teng Biao, was approached by the police but
declined, on principle, to meet with them. On December 12 and 13 there
were reports of interrogations in many provinces—Shaanxi, Hunan,
Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, and others—of people who had seen the
charter on the Internet, found that they agreed with it, and signed.
With these people the police focused on two questions: “How did you get
involved?” and “What do you know about the drafters and organizers?”
The Chinese authorities seem unaware of the irony of their actions.
Their efforts to quash Charter 08 only serve to underscore China’s
failure to uphold the very principles that the charter advances. The
charter calls for “free expression” but the regime says, by its actions,
that it has once again denied such expression. The charter calls for
freedom to form groups, but the nationwide police actions that have
accompanied the charter’s release have specifically aimed at blocking
the formation of a group. The charter says “we should end the practice
of viewing words as crimes,” and the regime says (literally, to Wen
Kejian) “we can send you to prison for these words.” The charter calls
for the rule of law and the regime sends police in the middle of the
night to act outside the law; the charter says “police should serve as
nonpartisans,” and here the police are plainly partisan.
Charter 08 is signed only by citizens of the People’s Republic of China
who are living inside China. But Chinese living outside China are
signing a letter of strong support for the charter. The eminent
historian Yu Ying-shih, the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, writers Ha Jin
and Zheng Yi, and more than 160 others have so far signed.
On December 12, the Dalai Lama issued his own letter in support of the
charter, writing that “a harmonious society can only come into being
when there is trust among the people, freedom from fear, freedom of
expression, rule of law, justice, and equality.” He called on the
Chinese government to release prisoners “who have been detained for
exercising their freedom of expression.”
—Perry Link, December 18, 2008