Sunday, January 18, 2009

An Official Response to Charter 08

One of the high points of the first issue of The New York Review in 2009 was the publication of the full text of Charter 08, translated into English from the original Chinese by Perry Link, who also provided an introduction and postscript. Link's introduction describes this document has "signed by more than two thousand Chinese citizens," ascribing the title to "admiration of the founding of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia," an organization founded by Václav Havel (among others) to lobby for Czech conformity to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. This admiration was reflected by the publication of Charter 08 on December 10, the 60th anniversary of the ratification of that Declaration. Reading Charter 08 one also sees the clear influence of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, as well as the political philosophers who had been their inspiration. Knowing what we know about the official Chinese reaction to dissidence, the publication of Charter 08 was a bold move.

Early this morning Ian Ransom reported for Reuters on what may be a definitive "party line" response to Charter 08. That response came from Jia Qinglin, China's fourth-most senior official, and includes the following injunctions to Chinese Communist Party members:

Build a line of defense to resist Western two-party and multi-party systems, bicameral legislature, the separation of powers and other kinds of erroneous ideological interferences.

Consciously abide by the Party's political discipline and resolutely safeguard the Party's centralized unity.

I find the use of the adjective "erroneous" particularly interesting. I forget the source of the joke I heard that Democrats think Republicans are stupid, while Republicans think Democrats are wrong; but the point of the joke is that both premises basically cut off all opportunity for discussion, deliberation, and ultimate resolution of differences. Neither is worse than the other, since each refuses to allow for what Jürgen Habermas (in his Theory of Communicative Action) called "the intersubjective recognition of criticizable validity claims" on both sides of the argument. To accuse Chinese citizens of stupidity might reflect badly on the country's educational processes; so the most face-saving way to condemn Charter 08 is to assert that it is in error. Needless to say, the second injunction makes it clear that the Party has no truck with Habermas, since its "political discipline" is not based on "intersubjective recognition of criticizable validity claims." Thus, the Chinese Communist Party will "deal with" Charter 08 by allowing it to "pass unnoticed," a strategy that, sadly, we have seen in the workings of our own government, most recently in response to our economic crisis. Perhaps Niall Ferguson's remarks about "Chimerica" are not as outrageous as they may seem to some of us!

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