The Magazine

Charter of Democracy

Will the dissidents in Beijing ever get the support their Soviet counterparts did?

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By ELLEN BORK
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Teng Biao, a Chinese lawyer, is a prominent member of the "rights defense" movement, which is attempting to use China's existing laws and institutions to protect human rights. After Teng and other lawyers offered to represent Tibetans arrested during widespread demonstrations in March 2008, the authorities refused to renew his license to practice law. Hu Jia, Teng's friend, with whom he wrote an open letter criticizing Beijing's rights abuses in connection with the Olympic Games, has been jailed. Teng himself has had a number of encounters with the security police, including being abducted and held incommunicado for two days.

In the middle of Teng's business card, in English on one side, and Chinese on the other, appear the words "Living in truth," the central idea of Václav Havel's 1978 essay "The Power of the Powerless."

In the essay, Havel--then a dissident Czech playwright who had been repeatedly jailed by the Communist regime in Prague--used a metaphorical greengrocer to illustrate the corrosiveness of life in a totalitarian system. The greengrocer hangs the slogan "Workers of the world, unite!" in his shop window. The sign, Havel wrote, has little to do with the words and their meaning. Its message, directed to the Communist rulers and his fellow citizens, is: "I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me." The slogan helps the greengrocer to hide his own degradation and oppression "behind the façade of something high. And that something is ideology . . . [which] offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them."

The greengrocer's predicament contains its own "repressed alternative." Suppose, Havel wrote, the greengrocer stops hanging the sign in his window. Suppose he goes further.

He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie.

His rebellion, writes Havel, contains "the singular, explosive, incalculable political power of living within the truth."

In early December, Teng and 302 other Chinese intellectuals and activists, lawyers, and even some serving officials published Charter 08, a statement inviting Chinese people, "inside the government or not, and regardless of their social status," to work for the "rapid establishment of a free, democratic and constitutional country."

An English translation of Charter 08 by scholar Perry Link was published in the January 15 issue of the New York Review of Books. In his preface, Link, who knows personally many of the Charter 08 signers, observed that the document "was conceived and written in conscious admiration" of Charter 77, the initiative of Havel and other Czechoslovak dissidents that led eventually to the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe.

Like the Czechoslovak Chartists, Charter 08's signers call themselves a civic movement, not an opposition organization. Both call for freedom of expression and the rule of law rather than the supremacy of the Communist party. Finally, just like the Czechoslovak Chartists, who were arrested in January 1977 as they attempted to put their document in the mail, two prominent Chinese Chartists, Liu Xiaobo and Zhang Zuhua, were detained on the eve of the charter's publication on the Internet. Liu, a writer imprisoned twice before, remains in custody. According to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, 100 other signers have been interrogated or harassed. Nevertheless, since the release of Charter 08, the number of people putting their names to it has grown into the thousands, with many Chinese living overseas among them.

The Chinese Chartists' invocation of their Czechoslovak comrades raises many questions worth considering. For now, the most important one is whether the free world will mobilize to support the Chinese Chartists, as it once did dissidents in the Soviet bloc.