On December 10, 2008, International Human Rights Day, a petition called Charter ‘08 appeared on the Internet. More than 10,000 dissidents signed the document before it was removed from the web by the Chinese government. The petition was drafted by 53 year old Liu Xiaobo a former literature professor who spent 21 months in detention for his participation in the 1989 pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square. It called for the end to China’s one-Party rule including free speech, the rule of law and open elections.
Last Friday, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Liu to 11 years in prison for subversion based on his involvement in Charter 08 as well as six articles he published on the Internet outside of China. For two years after he serves his term, Liu will be prevented from any public dissent. Most China experts agree that what is the longest sentence for subversion in over a decade was meant to send a message to other potential critics of the government.
In recent years, as China has had to deal with such domestic issues as tainted milk, poorly constructed schools that crushed many children in the Sichuan earthquake, increasing poverty in the countryside and rising government corruption, the leadership received more criticism from within the country. The same fears of destabilization that resulted in the shooting of hundreds if not thousands of protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989, produced a quick reaction to Charter ‘08 with a wave of crackdowns designed to squelch dissent before a series of politically sensitive 2009 anniversaries. These included the 50th anniversary of the Tibet uprising that led to the Dalai Lama’s exile on March 10th, the 10th anniversary of the Fuling Gong protests on April 25, the 10th anniversary of the banning of the Fuling Gong from China on July 22th, the 90th anniversary of the pro-democracy student movement that started the cultural rebirth of China on May 4th, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre on June 4th and the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1st.
According to human rights organizations, over 100 signatories of Charter ’08 were immediately placed under surveillance. Wong Rongquig, age 65, and a long time activist who has attempted to organization the Democratic Party, a new political party, was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of subversion of state power. Liu was held in secret for over a year before his trial, which lasted just 2 hours. His lawyers apparently had under 2 weeks for preparation.
Chinese Internet service providers removed all postings of Charter ’08. Bullog.cn, one of the most influential hosting services for Chinese intellectuals was shut down.
In a further Internet crackdown, the government launched a campaign to control online portals and major search engines such as Google and MSN by searching in Chinese for the words: “Charter ‘08”.
News of Liu’s sentence was officially blocked in China, but managed to be spread worldwide through Twitter.
At a time when China is enjoying a new wave of nationalism and its government, greater popular support that at any other time in recent Chinese history, there is clearly still the constant fear within the leadership that “too much” media freedom could potentially challenge their one-Party hold in the face of growing economic and social destabilization.
On Thursday, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman rejected calls from international sources to free Liu, stating that this was strictly an internal issue.
In 1996, Liu spent 3 years in a labor camp after demanding clemency for those still imprisoned as a result of their roles in the 1989 student democracy demonstrations. To this day, the Chinese government refers to the massacre at Tiananmen Square as the June 4th incident. Charter 08 is virtually unknown in China.
Read the Charter ’08 text