China’s Charter 77 Moment?

The Economist ran a leader in last week’s edition arguing that Xi Jinping’s new enthusiasm for the rule of law, as indicated by a raft of new policies related to China’s constitution is “good news in two ways”:

First, it has encouraging implications for his anti-corruption campaign. Xi-watchers are uncertain whether the campaign is a sincere effort to clean up the country or an excuse for a purge of officials the president has taken against. That he is emphasising the rule of law, rather than just continuing to pick off his enemies, suggests that the target really is corruption.

Using China’s constitution is a risk for Mr Xi—which is the second reason why this development is good news. The constitution is festooned with language relating to political rights. It guarantees freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association and of religious belief. Thanks to an amendment in 2004, it even guarantees “human rights”. Campaigners invoke the constitution in their cause. Last year journalists at Southern Weekend, a newspaper based in Guangzhou, went on strike after propaganda officials changed a leading article that called for guaranteed constitutional rights.

It’s the second way which is, here, of interest. The strategy of human rights campaigners described above, in which the text of official government documents is then used to illustrate the government’s failure to live up to its obligations, is reminiscent of Charter 77‘s. Noting  the Czechoslovakian government’s official status as a signatory of the Helsinki Accords, the text of Charter 77 proceeded to methodically elaborate all the ways in which the Czechoslovakian government fell short of its obligations under them:

IN THE CZECHOSLOVAK Register of Laws No. 120 of October 13, 1976, texts were published of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which were signed on behalf of our republic in 1968, reiterated at Helsinki in 1975 and came into force in our country on March 23, 1976. From that date our citizens have enjoyed the rights, and our state the duties, ensuing from them.

The human rights and freedoms underwritten by these covenants constitute features of civilized life for which many progressive movements have striven throughout history and whose codification could greatly assist humane developments in our society.

We accordingly welcome the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic’s accession to those agreements.

Their publication, however, serves as a powerful reminder of the extent to which basic human rights in our country exist, regrettably, on paper alone.

The right to freedom of expression, for example, guaranteed by Article 19 of the first-mentioned covenant, is in our case purely illusory. Tens of thousands of our citizens are prevented from working in their own fields for the sole reason that they hold views differing from official ones, and are discriminated against and harassed in all kinds of ways by the authorities and public organizations. Deprived as they are of any means to defend themselves, they become victims of a virtual apartheid.

Hundreds of thousands of other citizens are denied that “freedom from fear” mentioned in the preamble to the first covenant, being condemned to the constant risk of unemployment or other penalties if they voice their own opinions.

And it continues in that vein, methodically working through the contradictions between the texts of the agreements to which Czechoslovakia was a party and the reality of the lives Czechoslovakians led.

In a direct reference to Charter 77, Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists promulgated six years ago Charter 08 (a translation of which is here). But where Charter 77 calmly exposed the yawning chasm between the values Czechoslovakian leaders had signed up to promote and the ones they instantiated at home, Charter 08 reads like a more typical political declaration, demanding specific actions and policy changes. All together then, between the strategies currently deployed by activists in China and the existence of Charter 08, it would be fair to wonder if this is really a “Charter 77 moment”.

What could mark this time as different is the official stamp of approval which has been bestowed on this new appeal to the constitution. Everyone knew prior to Charter 77 that the rights enumerated in the domestic constitutions of Warsaw Pact countries existed on paper only, but it was in part the brazenness with which this fact was then (inadvertently or not – psychologists will have to weigh in here) trumpeted to the outside world via a very public pledge to promote the very rights which were systematically oppressed that allowed a group like Charter 77 to have an effect. In China, the Communist Party has perhaps given dissidents a cudgel with which to beat them over the inconsistencies of its position towards human rights, and no longer can party leaders appeal to the unspoken understanding that the constitution is a sham document (perhaps aimed at appeasing pesky Westerners with its cursory reference to “human rights”?). One wonders if perhaps Xi Jinping has not accidentally backed the party into a corner.