Rising critical stirrings leave officials on edge

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 January, 2009, 12:00am

Being dismissive of intellectuals is a pleasurable pastime enjoyed by many people. Maybe this is why the enormous significance of the growing Charter 08 movement on the mainland has been somewhat underplayed in Hong Kong.

The charter, initiated by some 300 writers, students, academics, intellectuals and peasant farmers, now has around 7,000 signatories and calls for wide-ranging reforms in China's political, legal and economic system. It is a self-conscious emulation of the famous Charter 77 campaign launched by Czech intellectuals, which is credited with having played a decisive role in the restoration of democracy in the former Czechoslovakia.

While some people may regard this as yet another hardly significant human rights protest, this view is clearly not taken by the Chinese authorities, which summoned almost one-third of the original signatories and interrogated them about the protest. The Central Propaganda Department has issued an edict instructing the mainland media not to publish articles by anyone who signed the charter and has banned interviews with them.

Meanwhile, authorities have been unusually frank in acknowledging the dangers of rising protests. Xinhua's Outlook magazine published a warning that, this year, 'Chinese society may face even more conflicts and clashes that will test even more the governing abilities of all levels of the party and government'.

The flashpoints for protests are not hard to find as economic growth slumps and unemployment mounts. The inevitable consequences of economic decline are exacerbated by China's growing gap between rich and poor. Layered on top of this is intense public resentment of endemic corruption that affects ordinary citizens in many aspects of their lives.

The Charter 08 campaign was timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an event that barely impinged on the consciousness of most people but has greater resonance in authoritarian societies where application of the rights contained in the declaration has yet to be achieved. And, in a nation that makes much of political anniversaries, many people are aware that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Chinese intellectuals were ruthlessly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and have suffered in the years that followed every time they stepped out of line. Nevertheless, intellectuals have played an important role in the nation's history, even though countless bouts of historical rewriting underplay this role. Indeed, the Communist Party itself was largely a creation of intellectuals and Sun Yat-sen's republican movement owed its origins to a small group of people whose intellectual concerns challenged the old order.

Nowadays, the overwhelming majority of what might be called China's intellectual class has been pressed into the service of the state where they either keep their heads well below the parapet or are busily engaged in work which enhances the role of the party.

Many intellectuals, including a significant proportion of those who took part in the 1989 protests, have declined to clamber aboard the official bandwagon but see it as prudent to keep away from intellectual pursuits, particularly those of a dissident nature. They have gravitated towards China's burgeoning private business sector or simply emigrated.

Those who continue to challenge one-party rule are brave and often isolated.

It is far too soon to judge whether Charter 08 will have anything like the impact of Charter 77, which at the time seemed like a hopeless cause. But there are many straws in the wind today that were previously absent. A heady mixture is formed from a combination of economic discontent, revulsion against the privileged and the doggedness of a class of intellectuals who can articulate this disquiet.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur