Friday, February 13, 2009

'A Universal Idea'

Charter 08 — A 'Universal Idea'

by Jonathan Adams,, February 6, 2009

Published online in early December 2008, "Charter 08" is a blistering indictment of Chinese Communist Party rule. It lays out a bold, detailed vision of a new China: one with the rule of law, multiparty elections, and the separation of powers.

One of the drafters, Liu Xiaobo, remains in Chinese police custody, facing charges of "inciting subversion" or worse. The police have questioned and warned at least dozens of Charter signers, muzzled state media, and blocked Web sites mentioning the Charter.

By now, the initial buzz about Charter 08 has died down, but some commentary continues. In two recent entries, Roland Soong at the widely-read EastSouthWestNorth blog (read here and here) dismissed the charter as holding little interest for most Chinese. (He quoted from an article I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor.) Rebecca MacKinnon also had a long essay on Charter 08 at her Web site.

I talked to Zhang Zuhua, one of the drafters of Charter 08, in Beijing last Dec. 26. In that interview, he made clear that Charter 08 was intended only as a political blueprint, and that reform could take decades, even generations. "We don't expect this change overnight," he said.

Mr. Zhang himself is a lesson in the rapid reversals possible within one lifetime in China. A 53-year-old Beijing native, he was "sent down" with other privileged youth to the countryside for "re-education" during the Cultural Revolution. He ended up making missile parts in a cave in Sichuan Province for eight years.

With the end of the Cultural Revolution's madness, he was part of the first generation to return to school. He studied at Sichuan Normal University, where he focused on Western constitutionalism. Later he rose through the ranks in the Communist Party Youth League, where he worked in the 1980s with Li Keqiang—now vice premier.

Mr. Zhang's own political career ended when he spoke out in support of the Tiananmen Square protests. He's been under off-and-on surveillance ever since. Most recently, police interrogated him for 12 hours on Dec. 8, 2008, over his involvement in Charter 08.

Here, in his own words, are his thoughts on Charter 08 and China's future. (The transcript has been edited and rearranged for readability.)

Jonathan Adams: Some critics say the ideas in Charter 08 are "Western" ideas, that China is in a special situation and so these ideas don't apply.

Zhang Zuhua: First of all, we have a very moderate attitude to such comments and critics. We welcome people to comment on this Charter, and we can learn from them.

I'm one of the charter's main drafters. When the police questioned me, I acknowledged that most of the ideas are Western ideas. The ideas of the charter come not only from the U.S. Bill of Rights, but also from the 1215 reforms in England [the Magna Carta], from the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and from the Czech Charter 77 [a 1977 call for political reform by Czech activists during the days of Communist rule].

But we also have a "native" (bentu) inspiration: that is, Taiwan. Before 1986, there were also many activists, people fighting for democracy and human rights in Taiwan, and publishing calls for those things. [Taiwan began democratizing in the late 1980s].

JA: Many Chinese say that China needs stability most of all, that it must focus on economic growth, and political reform can wait.

ZZ: Personally, I agree with this. China should take time to develop. [This] year will be the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. And so we hope China can move toward democracy and the rule of law with a very low cost. I hope China can accomplish this transition in a peaceful and nonviolent way.

JA: What will be needed for China to change?

ZZ: In my writings, I use a method of analyzing called "three plus one" analysis. Looking at all of the factors affecting China's future, I came up with three political elements and one economic. The political ones are the ruling party, civil society and international society.

The CCP is the ruling party and its choices about the future are obviously very important to Chinese society. However, the efforts of the ruling party are not enough. Without the participation of civil society and international society, it will be difficult to lead China down the right path.

JA: How soon do you think change can happen?

ZZ: I think it wouldn't be so difficult to accomplish a change in the [political] system, if the four factors that I mentioned are all ready. So I think in the next decade or two, this kind of change can be accomplished. However, consolidating and perfecting democracy—that will take a long time. Maybe it will require the efforts of several generations. So we don't expect to achieve this change overnight.

JA: Analysts I've spoken to say the Chinese government worries foreign influence is behind Charter 08—that foreign elements want to destabilize China from within.

ZZ: Personally, I don't agree with the opinion which rejects interference from other countries. I think this runs against the global trend of civil society. In Charter 08, we adopt a universal idea shared with the entire human race. It's not American, it's not European, it's not African. It works for all human beings. However, the CCP disagrees with this universal idea and criticizes it. That's our difference with them.

JA: What kind of response have you personally received to Charter 08?

ZZ: When we drafted Charter 08 we were concerned that it was only for elites, that it wouldn't be accepted by the common people. However, according to the response on the Internet, that's not the case. A lot of people, including peasants and workers, agree with Charter 08, and it's popular among more and more people.

Charter 08 calls for an independent judiciary and abolishing inequality. Ordinary people approve of all of these suggestions.

Actually, one of the most important suggestions in Charter 08 is to abolish the unfair principle of discrimination against peasants—or to abolish the difference between urban and rural residents, because many peasants are treated unfairly. I've received a lot of phone calls from peasants who advocate this proposal.

JA: What else explains the Charter's broad appeal?

ZZ: I think this Charter articulated what many Chinese people want to say. It's very rational and very constructive. First, a lot of people don't dare to speak out. Second, there's no place for them to speak out, because no media will publish them. And third, the first 303 people who signed the charter were very famous scholars.

For example, the first one to sign was Yu Haocheng [a prominent advocate of constitutional change]. Second was Zhang Sizhi [one of China's most famous lawyers]. And third was Mao Yushi [a very respected economist], and then He Weifang [a prominent advocate of legal reform in China].

And of course, they [the government] put people in jail—that attracts more attention.

JA: To what extent was the government's reaction to Charter 08 related to the upcoming anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown?

ZZ: The government has acknowledged that publicly. They have two concerns. One is the 1989 anniversary. The other is that the economy is very bad now—they're afraid of the chaos and problems caused by unemployment. … Actually, when the police interrogated me, they mentioned that high levels of the central government are really concerned about [this] year, because the situation may become quite serious.

JA: How important was the role of technology in distributing Charter 08?

ZZ: Thirty-one years ago, in the era of Charter 77, there was no Internet, so it was difficult to spread the document. Yesterday, I "Googled" Charter 08. Right now there are already more than 300,000 links about Charter 08. A lot of young people use blogs or QQ [referring to popular instant message software in China] groups to make friends, and they've also spread this new Charter. The English version of Charter 08 was spread rapidly. So thanks to the Internet, it's impossible to block information from society now.

JA: What is your situation now? Are you under surveillance, have you been questioned recently by police?

ZZ: Since Dec. 9, they haven't harassed me directly. However they [Chinese police] have people guarding our [his family's] building, and they've bugged my home phone and cell phone. They cut the home line from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. I was joking that I will protest, because that means they aren't very professional—they don't work very hard at night, because they want to rest.

JA: How worried are you that you'll be sent to jail?

ZZ: I'm not concerned, but my family and wife are. When I started to work on this project, I predicted that the government would react like this, that I might be detained. So I was mentally prepared. When the police questioned me, they also said that this wasn't over, that they would investigate further and maybe talk to me again. So I'm facing the risk of being detained again.

JA: Why are you willing to speak out?

ZZ: When I was in the police station, I told the police, "In every country, the situation is the same. The people who stand up and fight for human rights and freedom—they're the ones who lose those things first. They have to pay the price for other people's democracy and freedom."

I really don't want to be jailed, but I may have no choice. The system [of CCP rule] is like this—it doesn't allow people to oppose them, to disagree with the system. So we have to stand up and fight for democracy—it's our responsibility.

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