Charter 08: A New Beginning for Chinese Liberalism

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Feng Chongyi is Associate Professor in China Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, and adjunct Professor of History, Nankai University, Tianjin. He is author of numerous books in English and Chinese including Peasant Consciousness and China; From Sinification to Globalisation; The Wisdom of Reconciliation: China’s Road to Liberal Democracy and Liberalism within the CCP: From Chen Duxiu to Lishenzhi. He is also the editor of Constitutional Government and China; Li Shenzhi and the Fate of Liberalism in China; Constitutional Government and China; and Constitutional Democracy and Harmonious Society. He wrote this article for The Asia-Pacific Journal.

The publication of Charter 08 in China at the end of 2008 was a major event generating headlines all over the world. It was widely recognized as the Chinese human rights manifesto and a landmark document in China’s quest for democracy. However, if Charter 08 was a clarion call for the new march to democracy in China, its political impact has been disappointing. Its primary drafter Liu Xiaobo, after being kept in police custody over one year, was sentenced on Christmas Day of 2009 to 11 years in prison for the “the crime of inciting subversion of state power”, nor has the Chinese communist party-state taken a single step toward democratisation or improving human rights during the year. (1) This article offers a preliminary assessment of Charter 08, with special attention to its connection with liberal forces in China.

Charter 08 was not a bolt from the blue but the result of careful deliberation and theoretical debate, especially the discourse on liberalism since the late 1990s. In its timing, Charter 08 anticipated that major political change would take place in China in 2009 in light of a number of important anniversaries. These included the 20th anniversary of the June 4th crackdown, the 50th anniversary of the exile of the Dalai Lama, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, and the 90th anniversary of the May 4th Movement. Actually Chinese liberal intellectuals had earlier begun to advocate and discuss a road map and timetable for the march to constitutional democracy. (2) Charter 08 was discussed from the second half of 2008. Its three primary initiators and drafters were leading dissidents Liu Xiaobo, Zhang Zuhua and Jiang Qisheng. …

Charter 08 takes its name from Charter 77 written by intellectuals and activists in the former Czechoslovakia and borrows ideas and language from several international documents on human rights and democracy, including the Constitution of the United States, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the Universal Declaration Human Rights of the United Nations, and the reconciliatory approach of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as relevant Chinese documents throughout the modern era, including the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. ...

The concepts, standpoints and recommendations elaborated in Charter 08 represent a remarkable progress in sophistication of liberal and democratic ideas in China since the 1989 democracy movement symbolised by the hunger strike at Tiananmen Square and demonstrations on the streets of Beijing and other major cities. The connection between the two events is obvious, as all three primary drafters and many of the signatories took part in the democracy movement in 1989. For all of its significance, impact and extraordinary level of social mobilisation, the 1989 democracy movement produced no comprehensive document of political demands and aspirations, not even unified slogans for political change and democracy. This limitation was not due to negligence on the part of the democracy movement leaders and activists, but reflected the reality that even they had not understood core concepts of democracy and human rights.

We know that Chinese “liberal elements” in the 1980s, including the most profound thinkers such as Wang Ruoshui, Su Shaozhi and Yan Jiaqi, even the most radical dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng, were confined to the Marxist framework in their quest for democracy, typically expressed as “socialist democracy and legality”. This limit was overcome by Chinese liberals by the late 1990s, when Li Shenzhi, a senior communist expert on international affairs and former vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences with the rank of vice-minister, solemnly proclaimed that:

After three hundred years of comparison and selection in the whole world since the age of industrialization, and particularly after more than one hundred years of Chinese experimentation, the largest in scale in human history, there is sufficient evidence to prove that liberalism is the best, universal value.  Today’s revival of the liberal tradition stemming from Beijing University will beyond doubt guarantee the emergence of a liberal China in the world of globalization. (3)

The conversion to liberalism also means that Chinese liberals are no longer confined to formulations of “socialist democracy” that guarantee the leading role of the CCP. The experience of the June 4 crackdown and the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe provided an opportunity for Chinese liberals to deeply reflect on the illusion of “socialist democracy”, and they were awakened to the fact that the party-state had long been deceiving itself and others in claiming communist one party rule as a higher form of “democracy”. They sharply pointed out that the CCP under Mao’s leadership overthrew the Nationalist dictatorship only to supplant it with the CCP dictatorship, and Mao’s successors, the post-Tiananmen leadership, has maintained the despotic system and become yet more corrupt. Since the 1990s, based on their new found conviction that one party dictatorship and democracy are not compatible, Chinese liberals have categorically abandoned one party rule for constitutional democracy with all of its inherent features such as multi-party elections, legal safeguard of human rights by limiting the power of the government, and checks and balance of powers among legislative, executive and judicial branches. (4) …

Charter 08 represents a significant step forward and provides a remedy for the limits of the 1989 democracy movement. Despite harsh suppression of democracy and liberal ideas by the Chinese party-state, and partly due to this suppression, liberalism and the quest for human rights have been on the rise and achieved a level of sophistication in China since the late 1990s. Charter 08 can be seen as an embodiment and synthesis of theoretical and intellectual achievements by Chinese liberal intellectuals over a decade. The first achievement is the open embrace of constitutional democracy in rejection of one-party dictatorship, including the illusion of “socialist democracy” or “proletarian democracy”. For those who are critical of the practice of constitutional democracy or liberal democracy in the West, the universal values, liberal concepts and democratic recommendation summarized in Charter 08 are nothing but common sense. However, as argued by the signatories of Charter 08, one-party dictatorship is the root of social ills and inequality in China, whereas constitutional democracy or liberal democracy, less than perfect as it is, forms the basic institutional framework that is the prerequisite for other improvements, including deliberative democracy, social justice and economic equality. This is a lesson that has been paid for in the blood of millions living under state socialism.

To a great extent, signatories of Charter 08 can be seen as the apotheosis of the Chinese liberal camp. In term of professional and social diversity, the 303 original signatories of Charter identified themselves as scholars of all disciplines, lawyers, writers, journalists, editors, teachers, artists, officials, public servants, engineers, businessmen, workers, peasants, democracy activists and rights activists. In political or ideological perspective, they are liberal leaders in all walks of life.

China’s “reform era” can be divided into two different phases punctuated by the June 4 massacre of 1989, which brought a premature end to the healthy trend of political liberalisation inspired by democratic aspiration. Following the massacre, and in the wake of the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the CCP led by Deng Xiaoping took two resolute measures for survival: a ruthless purge of democratic forces in society and within the CCP on the one hand and accelerated introduction of “market economy” on the other. With the aid of capital, technology and consumer markets, facilitated by globalisation, China rapidly evolved into a new order of market Leninism, a useful term coined by New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof in which the Leninist party-state is sustained by the combination of relatively free-market economics and autocratic one-party rule. (5) In other words, it is an astonishing paradox, putting together previously incompatible elements of both capitalism and communism, the latter of which by definition aims at eliminating capitalism. To the surprise of many throughout the world, this strange hybrid has produced an economic dynamism parasitic on the exceptionally low cost of productive factors, the expanding global market and the expansion of imported and indigenous technologies and expertise. The enormous wealth generated by this new prosperity has provided greater incentive for Chinese communist power holders to hang on to power and more resources to co-opt other social groups and repress the opposition. The result is a transition to and consolidation of “power elite capitalism (quangui zibenzhuyi)”, in which the capitalism is dominated by the communist bureaucracy, leading to rapid, sustained economic growth on the one hand and endemic corruption, striking social inequalities, ecological degeneration and political repression on the other.  This unexpected outcome has disheartened many democracy supporters who fear that China’s transition is “trapped” in a “resilient authoritarianism” which could be maintained for the foreseeable future. (6)

However, because it has produced both acute social tensions beyond management and the new social and political forces challenging the one-party dictatorship, market Leninism’s resilience may prove to be limited, especially when facing concurrent economic downturn and deep social unrest. The social tensions have led to an amorphous but increasingly powerful wave of “rights defence movements” mentioned above. The most promising new political force engendered by market Leninism in China is the formation of a liberal camp in the late 1990s, consisting of at least six distinctive but partially overlapping categories: liberal intellectuals, democracy movement activists, liberals within the CCP, Christian liberals, human rights lawyers and grassroots rights activists. (7) Each of these groups propounded liberalism from its own perspectives through publications and speeches, took part in a variety of social and political activities for the cause of democracy, sometimes expressed mutual support for one another when persecuted by the party-state, and occasionally joined in issuing joint petitions or open letters on the internet to express their shared concerns or demands for democratic changes. …

Charter 08 is the most important collective expression of Chinese liberal thought to emerge since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. It embodies Chinese liberals’ sincere invitation to both the government and the public for constructive interaction and negotiation to effect and manage a fundamental political change toward constitutional democracy. Despite the Communist Party’s official agenda for democratic reform and human rights, the current leadership lacks the confidence to directly engage the Charter 08 framers and signers in theoretical debate on the issues raised, or to launch all-out war against signatories of the document. After hesitating for one year, the Chinese authorities severely punished Liu Xiaobo, but at this writing have left other signatories alone, although most of the 303 original signatories were “summoned for interrogations” (chuan huan) by the police within a month of the publication of the document. Out of fear of organized opposition, the authorities have emphasized blocking circulation of the document and “punishing one as a warning to others” to minimize the impact of Charter 08. This strategy has not succeeded in forcing one single signatory to withdraw, nor has it prevented more than ten thousand Chinese at home and abroad from adding their names to the document. However, the strategy of Chinese authorities has had a certain effect, at least for the time being, in leading many more who share the values and aspirations of Charter 08 to remain silent. In the long run, the proposals made in Charter 08 could serve as a guide for the emergence of a genuine Chinese democracy.


(1) The sentence also sent shock waves through the international community, the government of the United States in particular, which had hailed the Charter and asked for the release of Liu Xiaobo. 

(2) For instance, Feng Chongyi and Yang Hengjun, ‘Mingnian qibu, sannian chengjiu xianzheng daye’ (Start Next Year and Achieve Constitutional Democracy in China within Three Years).

(3) Li Shenzhi, ‘Hongyang Beida de ziyou zhuyi chuantong, (Promoting and developing the liberal tradition of Beijing University), in Liu Junning, ed., Ziyou zhuyi de xiansheng: Beida chuantong yu jinxiandai Zhongguo (The harbinger of liberalism: The tradition of Beijing University and modern China), (Beijing: Zhongguo renshi chubanshe, 1998), 1-5. Similar ideas had been put forward by others earlier, albeit with much less impact. For example, see Xu Liangying, ‘Renquan guannian he xiandai minzhu lilun’ (The concept of human rights and modern theory of democracy), Tanshuo (Exploration), August 1993; also in Xu Liangying, Kexue Minzhu Lixing: Xu Liangying Wenji (Science, Democracy and Reason: Selected Works of Xu Liangying), New York: Mirror Books, 2001, p.258-276.

 (4) 6  See Bao Tong’s recent work Zhongguo de yousi (China’s Anxiety), Hong Kong: Taipingyang Century Publishing House, 2000; Hu Jiwei, “Xin chun fang yan: yige lao gongchandang yuan de shensi ” (Unrestrained comments at new spring: reflections by a senior member of the CCP), Beijing zhi chun (Beijing Spring), no. 34, March 1996, p.6-14; Hu Jiwei, ‘Mingbian xingshuai zhilu, huainian Hu Zhao xin zheng’ (Understanding the causes for the rise and decline in commemoration of new undertakings by Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang); Li Rui, “Yingjie xin siji yao sijiang” (Four stresses to usher in the new century), Yanhuang chunqiu (Chronicles of China), no. 12,1999, p.5; Li Shenzhi, ‘Fifty years of storms and disturbance’, China Perspectives, no. 32 (November-December 2000), p. 5-12; Guan Shan, ‘Ren Zhongyi tan Deng Xiaoping yu Guangdong gaige kaifang’ (Ren Zhongyi’s talks on Deng Xiaoping and the reform and opening in Guangdong), Tongzhou Gongjin (Advance in the Same Boat), no.8, 2004, p.6-14; Xie Tao, ‘Minzhu shehui zhuyi moshi yu zhongguo qiantu’ (The model of democratic socialism and the future of China), Yanhuang chunqiu (Chronicles of China), no. 2, 2007, p1-8.

(5) Nicholas D. Kristof, "China Sees 'Market-Leninism' as Way to Future," The New York Times, September 6, 1993.

(6) Andrew Nathan, ‘Authoritarian Resilience’, Journal of Democracy 14, no. 1, 2003, pp.6–17; Minxin Pei, China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy, Harvard University Press, 2006.

(7) Feng Chongyi, ‘The Liberal Camp in Post-June 4th China’, China Perspectives, no.2 2009, p.30-42 

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Arnold Shcherban - 1/31/2010

Thanks for a very insightful comment, Mr.Godena.

Louis Godena - 1/25/2010

Feng's defense of a nearly non-existent Chinese "liberalism" and his hopes for its eventual development are cogent, even touching. This is all the more curious since he is obviously smart enough to know that political systems grow largely out of economic dispensations. Those underlying liberalism have been on the wane for some time and probably predate the so-called "fall of communism," a phenomenon on which Feng places many hopes but one which he obviously fails to fully understand. The liberal social-market state, having played its historic role as a fop against the spread communism is now being eclipsed by new forms of one-party state, not least of which is that extant in China. All states are fundamentally the same; they exist to fend off classes antagonistic to itself, and, in that sense, all states are one-party states. Feng's naive denial of this salient feature of national politics consigns him to the same political obscurity as yesterday's "liberals" in eastern Europe, whose mismanagement of economy and society were ghastly and infamous failures. Feng's thesis may be useful in explaining the ambitions and anxieties of minute but vocal "new classes" in Chines academic life, but it will never pay as program of practical political action.