Democracy, charter 08, and China's long struggle for dignity

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2008 was as auspicious as it was ominous for China's national developments. The Olympics marked Beijing's long-awaited "coming-out" party and showcased its tremendous strengths to the world. But for Liu Xiaobo and fellow signatories of Charter 08,1 a political manifesto released online on 10 December 2008, the subsequent crackdowns and imprisonment of Liu appeared to signal a turn for the worse for the country's democratic development. Still, China put on another spectacle in the 2010 Shanghai World Expo and proved yet again it could achieve all that without democracy. Indeed, what is democracy for when a government has managed to pull hundreds of millions out of poverty in the space of three decades and secure the country's place as the second largest economy in the twenty-first century? Is there a preponderant human need that goes beyond sheer material wants for which some even dare to risk their lives? Does a nation have dignity if its people have none? These questions permeate John Fitgerald's interesting paper on national dignity and individual dignity in China. 2 Despite a common assumption linking China's drive for national development and its people's aspirations for civil rights with a utilitarian pursuit of self-interest, Fitgerald argues: We make too little allowance for the possibility that China pursues wealth and power for the sake of asserting national dignity, and that citizens demand rights, not in pursuit of liberty or happiness, but out of concern to preserve personal dignity.3 In light of Francis Fukuyama's thesis of "the struggle for recognition" in The End of History and the Last Man,4 Fitgerald identifies the Greek term thymos, understood as "a propensity to feel self-esteem," as the universal drive that makes people fight for democracy.5 In the case of China, Fitgerald contrasts the notion of Chinese people "standing up" at the People's Republic's founding in 1949 with "the felt experience of a people reduced to jostling, crying and trading blows at home" during the Cultural Revolution.6 Today, the same nation is an indispensable world power politically and economically. Its burgeoning middle-class, however, are still jostling all the same with the authorities when wishing to get to the bottom of their babies' illness after drinking tainted milk formula,7 or over the truth behind massive school collapses during the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake.8 While China as a nation has, by many standards, stood up as a dignified superpower in waiting, powerless individuals who dare to stand up for their share of dignity back home languish precariously at the margins of society.9 Does China have national dignity if its people have no individual dignity?10 Liang Qichao, a significant reformist thinker during the Qing dynasty famous for his "new citizenship" thesis, powerfully wrote: The citizenry (guomin) is an assemblage of individual persons. The claims of the state (guoquan) are composed of the rights (quanli) of individuals. Therefore, the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a citizenry will never be obtainable without the thoughts, feelings, and actions of each individual member. That the people (min) is strong means that the state is strong; that the people is weak means that [the] state is weak; that the people is rich means that the state is rich; that the people is poor means that the state is poor; that the people possesses rights means that the state possesses rights; and that the people is without shame means that the state is without shame.11 Building on Fitgerald's idea, this chapter explores the notion that Chinese people's quest for democracy embodies their ultimate quest for dignity. Drawing on the defining events surrounding two of China's foremost political dissidents, Liu Xiaobo and Wei Jingsheng, I argue that their aspirations for democracy symbolize the people's wish to stand up against a state bent on maintaining stability at all cost. In Fukuyama's term, it showcases a "struggle for recognition" by those who jealously guard their dignity in the face of injustice.12 How will this politics of dignity play out in China? In light of Premier Wen Jiabao's repeated speeches in 2010 linking dignity with political reforms,13 this chapter also discusses the concept of dignity under Chinese constitutional order and traditional social ethos.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLiu Xiaobo, Charter 08 and the Challenges of Political Reform in China
EditorsJean-Philippe Béja, Fu Hualing, Eva Pils
PublisherHong Kong University Press, HKU
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic) 978-988-220-879-7
ISBN (Print)9789888139064
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jun 2012
Externally publishedYes


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