In 2010, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese writer, professor, and political critic Liu Xiaobo. He couldn’t accept it in person, though.
Liu had been detained by the Chinese government since 2008. That’s when he and other prominent intellectuals wrote Charter o8, a political manifesto calling for democracy in China and the end of the one-party system.
Since the 1980s, Liu has been an outspoken critic of the Communist Party, taking part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests, writing prolifically in Chinese-language publications, and repeatedly calling for democracy.
Liu’s influence peaked after he helped write Charter 08, though. The document was modelled on Charter 77, which intellectuals in communist Czechoslovakia had written 30 years earlier.
Over 350 intellectuals and activists initially signed Charter 08. In the short time before the Communist Party censored it, the Charter was signed by more than 10,000 people including scholars, journalists, businessmen, and teachers.
While no one in the West would find the Charter’s ideas radical, the Charter was scandalous in China. The document’s preamble had a scathing indictment of the Chinese system:
But so far, this political progress has largely remained on paper: there are laws, but there is no rule of law; there is a constitution, but no constitutional government; this is still the political reality that is obvious to all. The ruling elite continues to insist on its authoritarian grip on power, rejecting political reform. This has caused official corruption, difficulty in establishing rule of law, the absence of of human rights, moral bankruptcy, social polarization, abnormal economic development, destruction of both the natural and cultural environment, no institutionalized protection of citizens’ rights to freedom, property, and the pursuit of happiness, the constant accumulation of all kinds of social conflicts, and the continuous surge of resentment.
Charter 08 was unique because regular people signed it — not just dissidents and activists.
“This is the first time that anyone other than the Communist Party has put in written form in a public document a political vision for China. It’s dangerous to be associated with dissidents, so in the past, other, ordinary people have not signed such documents. But this time it is different. It has become a citizens’ movement,” Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, told The Washington Post in 2009.
The Communist Party’s response was swift. Many of the original signers were interrogated or arrested. The original document was expunged from the internet, along with any mention of it on social networks. Many Chinese attempted to continue to talk about Charter 08 online using code words, according to The Wall Street Journal. But for the most part, all discussion was cut off.
In June 2009, Liu was formally charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” By December, Liu had been given an 11-year sentence in a prison in Jinzhou, Liaoning Province.
The document is so subversive because it outlines a reasonable alternate political future for China, one in which the Communist Party is unnecessary.
The document calls for 6 “fundamental principles,” including freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, and democracy. The document also advocates 19 specific changes to the Chinese system, including a new constitution, an independent judiciary, and the guarantee of human rights.
Much to the chagrin of Chinese officials, the Charter draws heavily on the US Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. The document calls for familiar ideas such as legislative democracy, checks and balances, and the separation of powers.
Notably, the Charter called to abolish the crime that Liu ended up being prosecuted under: “inciting subversion to state power.”
Here is Charter 08 in its entirety:
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.