By VACLAV HAVEL
In January 1977, a group of Czechoslovak citizens, of which I was privileged to be one, released Charter 77. That document was our call for the better protection of basic civil and political rights by the state. It was also the articulation of our belief that, as citizens, we had a certain responsibility to work with the Czechoslovak government to ensure through our vigilance that basic rights would be protected.
With the release of Charter 77, we wanted to create not a membership organization, but instead, as I wrote then, “a free, informal open community of people of different convictions, different faiths, and different professions united by the will to strive, individually and collectively, for the respect of civic and human rights in our own country and throughout the world.”
More than three decades later, in December 2008, a group of Chinese citizens has taken our modest effort as their model. They have made a similar call — for human rights, good governance and respect for the responsibility of citizens to keep watch over their government — to ensure that their state plays by the rules of a modern open society.
The document they have issued is an impressive one. In it, the authors of Charter 08 call for protection of basic rights, increased judicial independence, and legislative democracy. But they do not stop there. With the passage of time, we have come to realize that a free and open society means more than the protection of basic rights. To that end, the signatories of Charter 08 also wisely call for better environmental protection, a bridging of the rural-urban divide, better provision of social security, and a serious effort to reconcile with human-rights abuses committed in decades past.
The original signatories, who number more than 300, come from all walks of life, and from across China — a testament to the broad appeal of the ideas put forward in Charter 08. Among the signatories are China’s top minds from law, political science, economics, the arts and culture. Their decision to sign onto such a document was surely not taken lightly, and their words should not be so brusquely brushed aside. Since the Charter was released, more than 5,000 men and women have added their names to it.
China in 2008 is not Czechoslovakia in 1977. In many ways, China today is freer and more open than my own country of 30 years ago. And yet, the response of the Chinese authorities to Charter 08 in many ways parallels the Czechoslovak government’s response to Charter 77.