Beijing moves to stifle reform calls

The Chinese government is moving to crush a group of prominent dissidents and intellectuals that has released a rallying call for democracy, human rights and rule of law.

The group of about 300 writers, peasant farmers, students, professors, journalists, economists, and political activists from across the country all signed a document, known as Charter 08, that provides a detailed and wide-ranging blueprint for peaceful political, legal and economic reform in China.

Since then, nearly 7,000 Chinese and foreign intellectuals inside and outside the country have signed Charter 08, which warns of “the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions” if Beijing does not quickly move to reform the one-party authoritarian state.

Chinese intellectuals and dissidents are calling the document the most significant of its kind for at least a decade and possibly since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Its name is a reference to Charter 77, the 1977 call for human rights issued by dissidents in former Czechoslovakia.

It has provoked increasing concern among China’s leaders. Since it began circulating one of the organisers has been detained without charge and friends and relatives had no word of his whereabouts until Friday.

At least 70 of the Charter’s 303 original signatories have been summoned or interrogated by police and China’s powerful Central Propaganda Department has warned all domestic media not to interview or carry articles by anyone who signs the charter.

The interrogations gathered momentum this week and all those called in have been ordered to retract their support for the Charter. The government appears to be concerned by the heady language and the prominence of many of the signatories, who include mid-level government officials and Communist party academics.

The charter was made public through the internet on December 10 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and comes on the eve of the 20th anniversary, on June 4, of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which it explicitly mentions.

Senior officials have shown increasing public concern over the potential for unrest as a result of lay-offs and crumbling growth. The charter could serve as a rallying call for up to 1.5m unemployed recent graduates.

Liu Xiaobo, a prominent literary critic, dissident and apparently one of the organisers of Charter 08, was detained by state security officers on December 8.

After nearly a month without word of his whereabouts and no formal charges, Mr Liu’s wife was allowed to meet him on the outskirts of Beijing on Friday and was told he was being held under house arrest at an undisclosed location, according to rights groups.

His detention appears to be a violation of China’s own criminal law, which states that a suspect subjected to “residential surveillance” must be held in their own home, say to rights activists.


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