Over the past few days, China has continued an arbitrary crackdown on the signatories of Charter 08 — a move that flies in the face of its own laws.
Beijing has not recovered from the shock of the charter, a bold call for democratic reforms signed by hundreds of concerned citizens — including government officials — and it is not prepared to forgive.
Three weeks after the charter’s release, Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), former chairman of the non-governmental organization Independent Chinese PEN and a participant in the Tiananmen protests of 1989, spent his birthday in incommunicado detention.
Human Rights Watch said Liu’s arrest and detention violate “the minimum procedural guarantees specified under Chinese law.”
On Monday, Radio Free Asia reported on the situation unfolding in Sichuan, where signatories of Charter 08 have been subpoenaed and barred from communicating with the outside world. Those interrogated by police have said that questioning focused on how the Charter 08 movement was organized through the Internet.
Although it remains unclear what “crime” police are investigating, it is evident that they want to understand how dissidents scattered across the country managed to build a network.
China will have a hard time explaining in what way Liu and others, such as Zhang Zuhua (張祖樺), a legal expert who remains under police surveillance, violated the law or the principles enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, which protects freedom of speech. Beijing’s repression of Charter 08, which is now blocked on Google, Yahoo and Baidu in China, is itself a violation of that principle.
China tramples its own laws and inflicts arbitrary punishment on its perceived enemies in the name of “stability.” Yet, in the words of one of China’s best-known dissidents, human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), until China establishes rule of law, “the day when Chinese society is stable and harmonious will never come.”
Calls to end this latest crackdown have come from rights organizations such as the Taiwan Association for Human Rights and Amnesty International. Last week, a group of prominent figures — including academics and writers Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco — sent an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) calling for Liu’s release.
Governments, including Taiwan’s, must back these calls.
The repression of Charter 08 should be of particular concern to the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Democratic reform and respect for human rights would not only benefit the 1.3 billion people of China, but also the 23 million Taiwanese living under the threat of missiles from across the Taiwan Strait.
Section 3, Article 18 of the charter, which addresses cross-strait relations, calls for negotiations between Taiwan and China “as equals” and urges Beijing to seek unification only through peaceful means and with full respect for democracy.
As ties with China grow stronger, the government must not shy away from criticizing Beijing and should strive to be a voice of freedom. In an interview soon after winning the presidential election, Ma said he believed Taiwan had a role to play in showing China the path to democracy. Yet it seems unlikely that Taiwan will play any such role unless it takes a firm stand against Beijing’s abuses of its own people.