Small green shoots of rebellion among ordinary Chinese

Sat, Jan 31, 2009, 00:00

A manifesto demanding democracy is gaining ground despite state efforts to quash it, writes Ariana Eunjung Chain Shanghai

WHEN TANG Xiaozhao first saw a copy of the pro-democracy petition in her inbox, she silently acknowledged that she agreed with everything in it but didn’t want to get involved.

Tang, a pigtailed, 30-something cosmetology student, had never considered herself the activist type. Like many other Chinese, she kept a blog where she wrote about current events and her life, but she wasn’t political.

A few days later, however, Tang surprised herself. She logged on and signed the document, sending her full name, location and occupation to a special e-mail address. “I was afraid, but I had already signed it hundreds of times in my heart,” Tang says.

Hers is the 3,943rd signature on the list that has swelled to more than 8,100 from across China. Although their numbers are still small, those signing, and the broad spectrum from which they come, have made the human rights manifesto, known as Charter 08, a significant marker in the demands for democracy in China, one of the few sustained campaigns since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Those who sign the charter risk arrest and punishment.

When the document first appeared online in mid-December, its impact was limited. Many of the original signers were lawyers, writers and other intellectuals long known for their pro-democracy stance.

The Chinese government moved quickly to censor the charter – putting those suspected of having written it under surveillance, interrogating those who had signed, and deleting any mention of it from the internet behind its great firewall.

Then something unusual happened. Ordinary people such as Tang with no history of challenging the government began to circulate the document and declare themselves supporters. The list now includes scholars, journalists, computer technicians, businessmen, teachers and students whose names had not been associated with such movements before, as well as some on the lower rungs of China’s social hierarchy – factory and construction workers and farmers.

On January 13th, a group of more than 20 Chinese intellectuals signed an open letter calling for a boycott of state television news programmes because of what they said is systematic bias and brainwashing, and separately, a Beijing newspaper ran a commentary that argued that freedom of speech is written into the constitution and that the authorities cannot solely decide whether something is “absurd versus not, or progressive versus reactionary”.

On January 7th, a prominent Chinese lawyer, Yan Yiming, went to the finance ministry and filed an application demanding that it open to the public its 2008 and 2009 budget books, including information about its $586 billion economic stimulus plan.

And early this month, the editors of the newspaper Southern Weekend echoed text from Charter 08 but did not directly refer to it when the paper expressed worry about the future of the state and said it supports “progress, democracy, freedom, human rights”. Charter 08 lays out a comprehensive overhaul of the political system by ending one-party rule and introducing freedom of speech, an independent court system, and direct elections. It is modelled on Charter 77, produced by intellectuals in Czechoslovakia in 1977.

“The Chinese government’s approach to ‘modernisation’ has proven disastrous,” the document says. “It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity and corrupted normal human intercourse.

“So we ask: Where is China headed in the 21st century?”

At the heart of the document is a call for rewriting the country’s constitution to emphasise 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 civilised ideals,” the document argues.

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.” He 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, as have researchers at the country’s top 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 organisers. His detention prompted an international outcry.

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 specialises in Christianity, also signed.

Mao Yushi (80), an economist 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.

“China is at a critical moment of transition. We must recognise the general values of the world and follow the trend of democracy,” said Teng Biao, a Beijing-based lawyer who was summoned by police after signing and warned off further involvement. Yet, one significant aspect of Charter 08 is its less famous signatories, like Tang. By most measures, she is a model citizen. The spunky, 4ft 10in Sichuan native who lives in Shanghai loves her country, pays her taxes, volunteers at a school for migrant workers’ children, and is a major fan of one form of traditional Chinese opera.

She grew up the eldest of three girls in a rural area where she says the schooling was weak but she taught herself by reading everything she could get her hands on, from Japanese novels to political treatises about the Middle East.

She posted a blog entry in December titled “I signed my name after a good cry”, which Chinese censors have repeatedly knocked off-line. Nevertheless, it has been widely circulated via e-mail and on websites outside China.

“We all grew up by feeding on ‘political melamine’. Fear has been consolidated into stones in our bodies,” Tang wrote, referring to a recent scandal involving the chemical that was illegally added to infant formula.

Tang says that her fear turned to anger after she noticed that her blog entries and other references to Charter 08 kept being deleted by censors. One night, she says she was hit by a great sadness that she did not have freedom of expression. So she took action. “If me, a little frightened person, signed it, then maybe others will feel inspired,” she says.

Before her blog was shut down entirely on January 13th, the comments section was filled by online friends who said they had signed Charter 08. Tang counts 17 so far. “I also signed,” one person wrote. “I cried when I knew Xiaozhao had cried. I wasn’t moved to tears by her tears, but I cried out of frustration and helplessness.” Another saw hope in the censorship: “They wouldn’t have been deleting posts in such a crazy manner,” he wrote, referring to Chinese authorities, “if they were not scared.”

Tang says she is ready to accept the consequences of signing: “I know exactly what may happen to me since I signed my name, but I am not afraid anymore.” – (LA Times-Washington Post service)