Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize and imprisonment sparks call for political reform

A candlelight vigil for imprisoned human rights activist and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

Some 120 prominent activists and scholars have penned a letter calling for political reform and supporting Nobel Peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo. This comes on the heels of an earlier letter by 23 Communist Party elders calling for Beijing to lift censorship which stifles and warps civil society in China.

“We call upon the Chinese authorities to make good on their oft-repeated promise to reform the political system,” reads the letter, which is being circulated online.

“In a recent series of speeches,” it goes on, “Premier Wen Jiabao has intimated a strong desire to promote political reform. We are ready to engage actively in such an effort. We expect our government to uphold the constitution of The People’s Republic of China as well as the Charter of the United Nations and other international agreements to which it has subscribed.”

The letter, signed by more than 100 professors, writers, lawyers and human rights activists, calls for the release of the imprisoned Mr. Liu, who won the prestigious Nobel Peace prize.

“This is a major event in modern Chinese history. It offers the prospect of a significant new advance for Chinese society in its peaceful transition toward democracy and constitutional government,” the letter states.

One of the letter’s signatories is Xu Youyu, a prominent liberal philosopher and scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Xu also signed Charter 08, the treatise authored by Liu Xiaobo calling for the end of one-party rule, democracy and widespread political reform.

I interviewed Xu in his Beijing apartment in 2007 just prior to the publication of Charter 08. His interview and conversations with other activists and historians make up my book’s last chapter, which compares political reform in the late Qing Dynasty to Communist China today. The parallels are striking.

Born at the start of the Communist Revolution, Xu graduated middle school and quickly became a fanatical Red Guard in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He moved to the countryside for several years before working in a factory. He began university, at age thirty-one, in 1978, the year Deng Xiaoping launched his modernization program. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford, Harvard and Stanford, and is China’s leading proponent of John Rawls, an American philosopher whose theory of justice balances freedom with equality of opportunity.

“In China, the problem is very simple,” Xu told me. “Almost every single rich person has earned their income illegally.” Wealth is entirely determined by the power of guanxi. Corruption is endemic. “Almost everyone in China recognizes that political reform is necessary,” he explained. “If political reform is not carried out, continued economic reform won’t happen. But political reform is just empty words from the authorities.”

About two years after my visit, Xu and some three hundred activists, lawyers and academics signed Charter 08, a manifesto calling for constitutional democracy and the rule of law in China. As one of the highest profile signatories, Xu has been interrogated and harassed by police, and has defied demands to withdraw his signature. Some senior Party officials consider Charter 08 a movement to overthrow the Communist government. “Such an interpretation of the Charter and the allegations of criminality are absurd,” Xu told a London newspaper, “but that is not new in China.”

Charter 08 states that the Communist Party’s “approach to ‘modernization’ has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse.” What little political reform there has been in China has “extended no further than the paper on which it is written.” The Charter goes on:

The stultifying results are endemic official corruption, an undermining of the rule of law, weak human rights, decay in public ethics, crony capitalism, growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor, pillage of the natural environment as well as of the human and historical environments, and the exacerbation of a long list of social conflicts, especially, in recent times, a sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people.

As these conflicts and crises grow ever more intense, and as the ruling elite continues with impunity to crush and to strip away the rights of citizens to freedom, to property, and to the pursuit of happiness, we see the powerless in our society—the vulnerable groups, the people who have been suppressed and monitored, who have suffered cruelty and even torture, and who have had no adequate avenues for their protests, no courts to hear their pleas—becoming more militant and raising the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions. The decline of the current system has reached the point where change is no longer optional.

The Charter’s signatories call for sweeping political reform: a new constitution, the separation of powers, legislative democracy, an independent judiciary, greater freedoms, protection of human rights and private property, and much more.

The outrage and attacks against China’s ruling regime—and the call for genuine political reform—echo similar demands in the dying days of the Qing Dynasty, a point I underscore in my book. The timing of the manifesto wasn’t lost on its authors either. Charter 08’s opening line reads: “A hundred years have passed since the writing of China’s first constitution.”