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Merle Goldman

Clinton's missed opportunity in China

By Merle Goldman
February 26, 2009
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DURING HER recent trip to China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not give much attention to human rights issues. The major focus was on economic policies and global warming. As important as these issues are, China's policies on human rights and its treatment of grassroots political movements could have a greater impact on the United States and international relations than economic or climatic issues.

In December, a group of Chinese citizens launched a movement called Charter 08, which presented a blueprint for fundamental legal and political reforms with the goal of achieving a democratic political system.

Patterned on Vaclev Havel's Charter 77 movement in the former Czechoslovakia, China's Charter 08 criticizes its government for failing to implement human rights provisions to which it had signed onto, such as the United Nations Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, and amendments to China's constitution in 2004 that included the phrase "respect and protect human rights."

Charter 08 points out that "unfortunately most of China's political progress has extended no further than the paper on which it is written." The political reality, Charter 08 states, "is that China has many laws but no rule of law; it has a constitution but no constitutional government." It calls for a political system based on democratic institutions of checks and balances.

What makes Charter 08 different from past protests is that it crosses class lines. Past demonstrations were usually carried out by specific classes focused on particular economic issues, such as peasant protests against confiscation of their land by local officials or worker protests against nonpayment of salaries.

Even during the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, students at first linked arms to keep workers and other urbanites from participating, because they knew that the party feared an alliance between intellectuals and workers. When other social classes forced their way into the 1989 protests and the movement spread to other cities and classes, Deng Xiaoping, fearing a threat to the party's rule, ordered the army to suppress the movement.

Charter 08 was initially signed by more than 300 intellectuals. Then, as it circulated on the Internet and elsewhere, Chinese citizens from all walks of life signed their names - entrepreneurs, professionals, local officials, workers, farmers, housewives, and street venders. So did a number of lawyers who defend those accused of political crimes.

Despite the movement's call for human rights reforms, the Chinese Communist Party began arresting signers of Charter 08. More than 8,000 people had managed to sign their names to Charter 08 before the goverment shut down its website in January.

The Charter 08 episode in China reveals widespread dissatisfaction with China's authoritarian market economy, including those who are the supposed beneficiaries of China's political model. Their participation in the Charter 08 movement may be attributed not only to worsening economic conditions in late 2008 because of the increasing closure of China's export industries due to slackening demand for Chinese consumer goods in the West, but also questioning of the political system on which the Chinese Communist Party has based its legitimacy. Despite the crackdown, Charter 08 represents a multi-class movement for political change in China that is likely to continue.

Such a movement needs the support of the international community. The worldwide outcry over the crackdown on the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslavakia marked the beginning of the unraveling of the Communist system in Eastern Europe. Clinton's recent visit to China would have been the appropriate venue for criticism of China's suppression of Charter 08.

Demands for political change in China will continue. The Obama administration should give more attention to human rights issues in China and support those who advocate peaceful political reforms. Clinton's trip to China was a missed opportunity.

Merle Goldman is Emerita Professor of History at Boston University and an associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard. Her most recent book is "From Comrade to Citizen: The Struggle for Political Rights in China."

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