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Shaun Randol: And the Ox it Rode in On — China’s Charter 08

This year is shaping up to be a remarkable one for the Middle Kingdom. Protests and civil unrest are on the rise, and chatter surrounding the pro-democracy petition called “Charter 08” is making waves across the country. What began with 303 signatories, many of whom are the usual suspects (i.e. human rights lawyers, professors, etc.), and who promptly received complementary state surveillance for participating—has grown into a percolating movement bringing more and more “everyday” citizens into the fold. At just over 8,100 signatures (and counting), Charter 08 appears to be the first promising movement in support of democratic reform since the tragic Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989. Released on the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 2008, Charter 08 calls for rewriting the Chinese constitution to allow for more democratic freedoms and an end to one-party rule. The document extols the value of freedom, announcing: “Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.” Charter 08 warns that if fundamental changes are not installed system-wide, violent and militant unrest cannot be stopped. Since China opened its doors to the wider world, Beijing has maintained a shaky agreement with its citizens, exchanging economic freedom for political liberty: feel free to rise as high and as far as you want economically—but if you complain about a lack of political rights, consider the deal kaput. Lately, however, Beijing has been unable to promise the stable economic environment that allows for unfettered economic freedom. Whereas recent U.S. jobless claims are reported in tens of thousands, in China they come in millions. Chinese economic growth shrank to 6.8 percent in the last quarter of 2008, the slowest pace in seven years and far below the estimated 8 percent needed to sustain new entries into the employment ranks and stave off mass unrest. Some economists predict China’s growth rate will contract even further, down to somewhere between 3 percent and 5 percent, in 2009. According Beijing, exports plummeted 17.5 percent in January, compared to the same time last year (imports fell off a precipice, dropping by a whopping 43 percent over the same time). The official urban unemployment rate stands at 4.2 percent, up from 4 percent last year (Beijing does not keep official statistics of the rural jobless). But currently, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates the nationwide unemployment rate to be around 9.5 percent—a number expected to rise through the year. Upwards of 15 million workers may join the ranks of the unemployed this year. In just the past few months, we have witnessed a widespread reverse internal migration—poor urban workers are now returning, by the millions, back to the rural lands from whence they came.

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