China cannot move forward from a jail cell

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 December, 2009, 12:00am

Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo faces 15 years in jail for inciting subversion. The indictment cites as evidence a document he co-authored known as Charter 08 and articles published on the internet, which call for the guaranteeing of basic rights, religious freedom and political reform.

It is not entirely clear why that should be a crime - China's laws enshrine these civil liberties. Authorities have repeatedly said they want to live up to high standards. In April, the State Council promised to improve the protection of civil liberties. Under a two-year plan, it pledged that there would be fair trials and open discussion of policies.

And yet Liu is on trial. If China's leaders were focused on following those pledges, Liu would be a free man. But the Communist Party does not tolerate opposition, and is quick to quash perceived threats; there has been no sign of such a shift in policy or attitude - the revelation that Liu will soon appear in court after a year in detention seems to confirm that. The literary critic and the 10,000 other people who have signed Charter 08 are not calling for a revolution. They are seeking open discussion. Among their suggestions is an end to one-party rule.

The constitution does not have such a provision, but there is no law that says discussion of the issue is a crime. China's political system needs to evolve. The voice of the nation's 1.3 billion people needs to be better heard by leaders. Electoral representation is an obvious way forward, but what form this takes needs to be openly and freely considered. This is precisely the discussion that Liu was attempting to initiate.

The constitution is not perfect; such documents can never meet future needs and have to be regularly reviewed and updated. China has undergone huge change since its approval 27 years ago. This is no reason, though, to ignore internationally recognised rights upheld by Article 35: freedoms of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration. The document also guarantees religious worship and the right to vote and run for election.

These rights are being denied. Liu has been silenced for calling for them to be upheld and widened. His asking for public debate has been ignored. Even his constitutionally-granted right to a fair trial seems likely to be taken from him. Leaders constantly speak of a harmonious nation, but this will not eventuate if their words and actions do not match.

People have to be allowed to openly speak about their grievances and desires. Confining that forum to a jail cell is no way to move China forward.

Releasing Liu, dropping the charge he faces and, in line with the constitution, allowing discussion on all matters is the best way forward for the nation and its people.


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