The media reports on the recent death of Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, of cancer after years of imprisonment, have focused on his life, especially the prison years and the continued surveillance of his wife, the poet Liu Xia. There has been less emphasis on the Charter 08 positions which still exist as “fire under the ashes.” Liu Xiaobo was the principal writer of Charter 08, but it was collectively written and co-signed by a good number of academic intellectuals.
Charter 08 is consciously modeled on Charter 77 of Czechoslovakia, largely written by Vaclav Havel but also a collective effort to promote plurality, diversity, and the capacity of self-organization. This starting point of an autonomous culture was not a polemic against officialdom, but was poets and novelists, painters and filmmakers, dramatists and political theorists attempting to go around censorship—what Havel called “The Power of the Powerless”.
Cultural challenges in the arts and sciences are more fundamental and enduring than a political manifesto. Thus governments watch cultural currents closely for danger signs of post-totalitarian currents.
Charter 08 is a combination of political propositions of a liberal order promoting cultural and intellectual diversity. The political propositions of Charter 08 were continued in the November 1993 “Beijing Peace Charter” whose spokesperson was Qin Yongmen, and the 1998 short-lived China Democratic Party led by Wang Youcai.
Three elements in Charter 08 were particularly frightening to Chinese government authorities and led to the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo for “inciting subversion of state power and the overthrow of the socialist system.” Only one element was directly political: the call for a federal constitution for China.
The Charter 08 proposals were consciously timed to recall the 1908 first constitutional proposals as the Qinq dynasty was falling apart. This first constitutional proposal was to facilitate the transition from an empire with an emperor to a republican form of government largely practiced in Western Europe.
The constitutional forms which followed with the creation of the Republic of China as well as the later People’s Republic have been highly centralized. Proposals for regional autonomy such as those put forth by the Tibetans have always been considered as “splittist”—leading to dissolving China into its ethnic areas, again, leading as in the 1920s-1930s to the rise of “War Lords”.
Some discussion of federalism is permitted when discussing the administration of Hong Kong and possible relations with Taiwan. However, federal structures for the “Mainland” are outside of tolerated issues. The mention of a “federal republic” in Charter 08 raised red flags that the authorities did not miss. Liu Xiaobo wrote,
“Of the four pillars of totalitarian rule, only political centralization and its blunt repression remain… The two fold tyranny of the Maoist era-persecution of the flesh and trampling of the spirit—is no more, and there has been a significant decline in the effectiveness of political terrorism”.
The other two subjects that cause sleepless nights to government officials and that Charter 08 and Liu Xiaobo stressed are the growth of a pluralistic civil society and the possibility of nonviolent action—Mahatma Gandhi’s name being mentioned.
The role of civil society, especially in the break up of the Soviet Union and the end of its direct influence in Eastern Europe, has not escaped the attention of the Chinese government. Liu Xiaobo’s views were directed to civil society action in China. He wrote:
“China’s course of transformation into a modern, free society is bound to be gradual and full of twists and turns. The length of time it will take may surpass even the most conservative estimates… Civil society remains weak, civic courage inadequate and civic wisdom immature: civil society is still in the earliest stages of development, and consequently there is no way to cultivate in a short time a political force adequate to the task of replacing the Communist regime… Yet, in the post-Mao era, the society entirely based on official authority no longer exists. An enormous transformation toward pluralism in society has already taken place, and official authority is no longer able to fully control the whole society. The continuous growth of private capital is nibbling away at the regime’s economic foundation, the increasingly disintegrated value system is challenging its ideology, the persistently expanding civil rights protections are increasing the challenges to the strength of the arbitrary authority of government officials and the steadily increasing civic courage is making the effectiveness of political terror wither by the day.”
Even more dangerous was Liu Xiaobo’s evocation of Gandhi and nonviolent action. As he wrote,
“The greatness of nonviolent resistance is that even as man is faced with forceful tyranny and the resulting suffering, the victim responds to hate with love, to prejudice with tolerance, to arrogance with humility, to humiliation with dignity, and to violence with reason. The victim, with love that is humble and dignified, takes the initiative to invite the victimizer to return to the rule of reason, peace and compassion, thereby transcending the vicious cycle of replacing one tyranny with another.”
“Nonviolence is committed to putting freedom into practice in everyday life through initiation of ideas, expression of opinions and rights defense actions and particularly through the continuous accumulation of each and every rights defense case, to accrue moral and justice resources, organizational resources and maneuvering experience in the civil sector. When the civic forces are not yet strong enough to change the macro-political environment at large, they can at least rely on personal conscience and small group cooperation to change the small micro-political environment within their reach… Bottom-up reform requires self-consciousness among the people, and self-initiated, persistent and continuously expanding civil disobedience movement among the people.”
At a time when there are what the government calls “incidents”—strikes and demonstration concerning working and housing conditions, resident permits, and confiscation of rural lands for building projects—the government can easily fear that all these “incidents” combine into a country-wide protest movement with some overall leadership and a creative use of nonviolent techniques.
The body of Liu Xiaobo was burned quickly after his death, in part so that his friends could not attend the ceremony. However, there is fire under the ashes, and we can expect new nonviolent actions led in his spirit.
René Wadlow is a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Task Force on the Middle East, president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens.