December 10, 2008 could turn out to be a very telling date. While it was internationally celebrated – and bemoaned due to lack of progress – as the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the news was sparse on a potentially pivotal signing in China, called Charter 08. It is fashioned after the January 1977 signing of a similar document in Czechoslovakia - Charter 77 - by over 200 Czech and Slovak intellectuals, including Václav Havel. In many ways Charter 77 was the visible sign of the seed that had been stirring and eventually produced the Velvet Revolution.
Could the same thing happen in China? For sure it is an encouraging sign. And very brave. The 300 original signatories all live in China, are the intellectual edge and hold many prominent positions. Many have since been questioned and some detained as the authorities crackdown on this movement. The Chinese authorities want to continue their dual system of economic freedom but an iron fist for political dissent. And so while this could simply be one more courageous but futile attempt at reform, the timing is trickier now. The internet has allowed thousands of Chinese of all stripes to add their names, and to quickly disseminate it. And with the economic downturn, the authorities know that unrest will grow.
As well, 2009 will bring many potential fuses. Before it celebrates its 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic on 1 October, 1949, it will first have to get by the 90th anniversary of the 4 May movement, one of the seminal acts of protest in modern Chinese history. And then one month later, comes the 20 year mark since the Tiananmen Square protests.
The charter (Charter 08 English Translation) calls for a different world – one based on human rights and freedom; it calls for an end to the one-party state and a true separation of the three branches of government (legislative, judicial, and executive). It is an attempt by the writers to bring China fully into the modern world.
No one can say whether it will succeed, only that such desires continue to ferment. To me this is the inextinguishable spirit of goodness that pervades life. It can’t be contained – it will continue to seep through the cracks. China has made great strides; but the course initiated by Deng Xiaoping with its economic gains that have wonderfully raised living standards, is reaching its limit. The political repression (at times up to 200 protests per day, often due to the resulting economic disparity), staggering environmental damage, and widespread corruption cannot continue unchecked. Throughout China’s long history have been pivotal times when that basic sense of goodness has prevailed. For the sake of 20% of humanity, I hope somehow that day will again soon dawn.