This morning, I woke up to the news that prominent Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo has been charged with ‘inciting subversion’, and potentially faces 15 years in prison. Liu is the founder of Charter 08, a petition modelled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 calling for democratic constitutional reforms in China, such as multi-party elections, greater freedom of expression and independent courts. The document received around 7,000 signatures both within and outside of China, and warned ominously of “the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions” if Beijing failed to reform the one-party authoritarian state.
In December 2008, prior to the charter’s online publication, Liu was taken into detention. In June of this year, he was formally arrested on suspicion of incitement to subvert state power. The FT also reported that, since the detaining of Liu, “70 of the Charter’s 303 original signatories have been summoned or interrogated by police and China’s powerful Central Propaganda Department.”
As Tania Branigan says, Liu has a long history in the world of Chinese dissent. He was jailed for his role in the pro-reform protests in Tiananmen Square, and subsequently sent to a re-education camp in the 1990s. But after his release, he refused to go abroad, preferring to stay in China and write essays, which the CCP appeared to tolerate up until December last year.
Unsurprisingly, these developments have brought into question China’s human rights abuses and how far the PRC must be held accountable for political repression. But the reality of the matter is that, in spite of the thousands of signatures Charter 08 garnered, more widespread support for such reforms throughout China is few and far between. The historic lack of a fortified middle class and civil society, matched with the legacy of excesses during Mao’s time, means dissent occurs in small, particular pockets. Even during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, it has been argued that the element of ‘pro-democracy’ was overshadowed by the disorganisation of the movement. Whilst intellectuals and students believed Deng’s reform had not gone far enough, workers suffering in inflation-ridden China felt it had gone too far.
Li Datong has argued, however, that China’s civil society is being reborn online. True, fierce debate found in the blogosphere and BBS forums is perhaps giving rise to a new citizenry. But offline, it is all too easy to feel that the majority of Chinese are more concerned with maintaining a high standard of living and absorbing the consumerism being fed to them, which, as I have said before, is not unjustified given the history of abject poverty behind the country.
For these reasons, as much as we in the West promote the penetration of democratic reforms and human rights in China and making the CCP accountable for repression, we must understand we are working with a different world and a different system. The vocabulary of democracy and human rights is still incredibly fresh in the country, and remains the concern of a select few. And whilst Peter Tatchell argues for a global index of human rights, it is wrong to force change upon a country that is, for the most part, not desperately wanting it.
I am not denouncing the importance of Charter 08, nor am I defending the imprisonment of a man who stuck by his integrity and beliefs to bravely produce such a document. On the contrary, I uphold Liu Xiaobo for his strength. My argument is that China has a long way to go before true democratic change reaches a higher place on the political agenda, and the imposing of Western-produced standards lacks a cultural understanding of how different China really is.
It may be my cyncical side talking, but I feel the news of Liu Xiaobo’s charge will reverberate more around the West than the East today.