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China: Charter 08 Calls for New Constitution, Separation of Powers, Legislative Democracy

(Dec. 16, 2008) “Charter 08” – dated December 10, 2008, to coincide with a number of significant anniversaries in the evolution of human rights in China – is a “blueprint for fundamental political change” in China, modeled after Czech human rights activists' Charter 77. As Professor Perry Link, who translated the document into English, notes, Charter 08 “calls not for ameliorative reform of the current political system but for an end to some of its essential features, including one-party rule, and their replacement with a system based on human rights and democracy.” (Charter 08, 56:1 THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS (Jan. 15, 2009), available at; Charter 77 after 30 Years: Documenting the Landmark Human Rights Declaration, National Security Archive [of the George Washington University], (last visited Dec. 11, 2008).)

Charter 08 is divided into three parts: a foreword, fundamental principles, and points of advocacy. The date of the Charter, as its foreword points out, coincides with the sixtieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the centennial of China's first constitution, the thirtieth anniversary of the appearance of Democracy Wall in Beijing, and the tenth of China's signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The foreword also takes note that 2009 will be the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It clearly states, “the Chinese people … now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.” The signers ask where China is headed – towards continued authoritarian rule or construction of a democratic system through the embrace of universal human values – and, after reviewing the course of political change in China since the 19th century, conclude “[t]he decline of the current [authoritarian] system has reached the point where change is no longer optional.” (Charter 08, supra; see also text in Chinese, China Human Rights Defenders website, (last visited Dec. 11, 2008).)

The fundamental principles endorsed by the Charter are the “basic universal values” of freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy, and constitutional rule. The Charter's final section, on what the signers advocate, comprises 19 recommendations. They include, for example, establishment of: a new constitution; separation of powers; legislative democracy; an independent judiciary; the guarantee of human rights, by such measures as setting up a Human Rights Committee “responsible to the highest legislative body” and abolishing the “reeducation through labor” system; guarantees of freedom to form groups and universal freedom of expression; protection of the environment; a federated republic; and a Truth Investigation Commission, “charged with finding the facts about past injustices and atrocities, determining responsibility for them, upholding justice, and, on these bases, seeking social reconciliation.” (Id.)

Signers of the Charter include a number of pro-democracy activists, scholars, writers, lawyers, legal experts, journalists, and citizens in other walks of life, many in Beijing and Shanghai, but also from a number ofother provinces or autonomous regions, as well as the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia. Some of the more well-known dissidents and government critics who signed the Charter are democracy activist and writer Liu Xiaobo, the well-respected legal expert Yu Haocheng, and Professor Ding Zilin; two prominent lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang and Mo Shaoping, also are on the list. Liu was taken away by police on December 8, a few days after at least two other human rights activists in Guizhou Province were detained. On December 9, Jiang Qisheng, another prominent pro-democracy activist, said he was interrogated by police for 1½ hours; Zhang Zuhua, a main author of the Charter 08, was questioned for 12 hours and released. (China Marks Human Rights Day with Arrests, Rights' Scandal, AFP,
(last visited Dec. 11, 2008); see also Richard Spencer, Chinese Dissidents Emulate Anti-Soviet Heroes with Charter 08,, Dec. 9, 2008, available at
; Over 300 Sign “Charter 08”, a Manifesto for Human Rights in China, but Some Are Already Arrested, ASIANEWS, Dec. 10, 2008, available at; China Retaliation for Signatories of Rights Charter, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, Dec. 10, 2008, available at; Charter 08: Five Links, (last visited Dec. 11, 2008.)