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.

In thinking about the Cold War era as a model for supporting dissidents in China, it is important to remember that the West's record was not always clear. For example, although the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 is now viewed as a major contribution to the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc, it was not intended to be. The Helsinki accords were a "document of détente," as Jeri Laber, the founder of Helsinki Watch, put it. The Warsaw Pact countries and the West agreed to confirm the Soviet Union's postwar boundaries. Human rights provisions, relegated to a "third basket," were not taken seriously by the Warsaw Pact countries. Not surprisingly, many dissidents were pessimistic about Helsinki. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, by then in exile in the West, anticipated the "funeral of Eastern Europe." Comparisons were made to the conference at Yalta.

Yet other dissidents, learning from the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other Western broadcasts about the human rights commitments their governments had insincerely undertaken, sensed that something had changed. "Everyone here has his own reaction to this," one wrote from Prague: "We, the people from the ghetto, feel a cautious hope; the secret police feel an increased nervousness." At least, there was opportunity. In Moscow, Yuri Orlov, Natan Sharansky, and others reasoned, as Sharansky later wrote, that "if the human rights commitments contained in the Helsinki agreements became important to the free world, then the Soviets could not easily ignore them." Soon Helsinki monitoring groups formed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Charter 77 was launched in January 1977, timed in anticipation of the Belgrade conference scheduled for the fall, at which the signing governments would review implementation of the accords.

The governments of the free world were not the first, or the staunchest, sources of support. President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had initially opposed the inclusion of human rights provisions in the Helsinki Final Act--fortunately several European countries insisted--and later they opposed the establishment of a U.S. commission to monitor implementation. In the United States, it was private groups, especially Helsinki Watch, that provided support and pressured governments. Members of Congress already active on behalf of "refuseniks" (Soviet Jews denied visas to leave the USSR) visited Helsinki activists, giving them a measure of protection. When congresswoman Millicent Fenwick remarked on the risk refuseniks were taking by meeting with official American visitors, one of the activists replied, "Don't you understand? That's our only hope. We've seen you. Now they know you've seen us."

In Poland, too, official U.S. support for dissidents lagged behind private efforts. After workers at the Gdánsk shipyard founded the independent labor union Solidarity in August 1980, Jimmy Carter's secretary of state, Edmund Muskie, tried to dissuade Lane Kirkland, the head of the AFL-CIO, from providing financial aid to the union. But Kirkland remained "unimpressed by these arguments," wrote his biographer Arch Puddington. "He told Muskie .  .  . the labor movement, as an independent institution with ties to free unions around the world, had the obligation to assist its fellow unionists."

Kirkland believed that pressure from abroad would help the dissidents and deter the Soviet Union and the Polish government from cracking down. As he explained at a press conference in Chicago shortly after the Solidarity strike began, "Every spokesman for freedom in Iron Curtain countries with whom we have had contact .  .  . has strongly asserted the proposition that their survival and inspiration depend very heavily on support and attention and publicity from the Free World."

Things got worse before they got better. Many Helsinki activists inside the Soviet bloc were arrested. Martial law was declared in Poland in 1981. Thanks to the sacrifices of the dissidents and the efforts of their supporters abroad, however, expectations changed, not only of what it was possible to achieve behind the Iron Curtain, but also of what American policy should be.

America's relationship with the People's Republic of China has followed a different path. From the beginning, Washington has viewed its relationship with Beijing as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. A Cold War accommodation led Washington to subordinate democracy and human rights to other interests. "What is important is not a nation's internal political philosophy," Richard Nixon told Mao in 1972. "What is important is its policy toward the rest of the world and toward us." Dissidents and their causes were largely ignored. Even Ronald Reagan referred to the PRC as "this so-called communist country," a "shrewd formulation" according to writer James Mann, that "deflected attention from the unchanged nature of China's political system and enabled Reagan to keep on denouncing political repression in the Soviet Union while saying virtually nothing about similar conduct in China."

None of this was lost on Chinese dissidents, who felt neglected while the free world took up the cause of their Soviet counterparts. Their frustration mounted as they watched the Soviet Union dissolve and U.S. policy toward China remain unchanged. In 1990, Fang Lizhi, the dissident physicist sometimes called the "Chinese Sakharov," went into exile. A mentor to student democracy protesters, Fang had taken refuge in the American embassy on the night of the Tiananmen massacre one year before. Upon his arrival in the West, Fang criticized the West for its "double standard" toward human rights in China. Fang, now a professor at the University of Arizona, is one of the overseas signers of Charter 08, along with the writers Ha Jin and Zheng Yi.

Twenty years later--long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution that made Václav Havel president of Czechoslovakia--the effects of this double standard are still being felt. U.S. "engagement" policy depends on rationalizing Chinese repression. American officials engage in bogus human rights dialogues and delude themselves that China's Communist leaders will see political reform as "in their interest." The end of Mao-era mass repression is taken for progress, yet the methods have simply changed, becoming more sophisticated and often subtler, with cooptation and incentives giving way when necessary to coercion and brutality.

Before the Gdánsk strike of 1980, Polish activists were near despair. "[W]e felt we were at the end of the road," Zbygniew Bujak later told Havel's translator, Paul Wilson.

We had been speaking on the shop floor, talking to people, participating in public meetings, trying to speak the truth about the factory, the country, and politics. There came a moment when people thought we were crazy. Why were we doing this? Why were we taking such risks? .  .  . Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up. .  .  . When I look at the victories of Solidarity and Charter 77, I see in them an astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel's essay.

Havel wrote that the power of the truth depends not only on "those who already live within it," but also "on the soldiers of the enemy, as it were--that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth." The fear of such power caused the Soviets to expel Solzhenitsyn, Havel wrote, "in a desperate attempt to plug up the dreadful wellspring of truth, a truth which might .  .  . one day produce political debacles unpredictable in their consequences."

The same fear has led PRC authorities to exile dissidents like Fang Lizhi, Wei Jingsheng, and Wang Dan and imprison tens of thousands of others. Now they have begun to move against Liu, Xiaobo, and other signers of Charter 08. Much as Soviet and Eastern European dissidents undermined détente as the basis for U.S.-Soviet relations, so do Chinese dissidents threaten the logic of American policies toward Beijing. It remains to be seen if their efforts will also become "important to the free world."

Ellen Bork works on human rights at Freedom House.