Teaching the Principles of American Government with China’s “Charter 08”

News of the tragic death of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo–who was serving an 11-year prison sentence for his role in the writing of the democratic reform document called “Charter 08“–led me to read an English translation of that remarkable expression of yearning and advocacy for liberal democracy. Charter 08–publicly released in China on the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (on December 10, 2008)–begins by identifying “democracy and constitutional government” as “the fundamental framework for protecting” the “universal values” of “freedom, equality, and human rights.” It then goes on to advocate for the establishment in China of laws, practices, and institutions that have long been hallmarks of the American system of government and politics. Among other things, it advocates for rule of law and constitutionalism; the separation of powers (especially an independent judiciary); free and open elections; protections for the freedom of speech, assembly, association, and of religion; protection of private property; and federalism. At a time when American citizens are increasingly ignorant of many of these governing principles, when schools have abandoned civic education, and when democracy in America is apparently more vulnerable than at any time since at least World War II, this document seems nearly as significant to reformers here and now as it was to the revolutionary martyrs in China, like Liu Xiaobo, in 2008. Indeed, in light of recent developments in the U.S., it is difficult to not envy the relative optimism of these reformers in 2008 that the arc of 21st century politics will bend toward democracy:

Authoritarianism is in general decline throughout the world; in China, too, the era of emperors and overlords is on the way out. The time is arriving everywhere for citizens to be masters of states. For China the path that leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the authoritarian notion of reliance on an “enlightened overlord” or an “honest official” and to turn instead toward a system of liberties, democracy, and the rule of law, and toward fostering the consciousness of modern citizens who see rights as fundamental and participation as a duty.

I have long thought an appreciation for liberal democracy requires a comparative perspective. In particular, I think the benefits and virtues of (at least the aspirations of) liberal democracy can best be seen and appreciated by learning about the disadvantages and vices of actual authoritarian regimes. After reading Charter 08, I think I will design an assignment in which students read the specific reform proposals in that document and conduct research on 20th century Chinese politics to learn about why Xiaobo and other revolutionaries advocated for those reforms. This might be rounded out with relevant studies in comparative politics (not focused on China in particular). To understand the value of free elections, it helps to be familiar with the tendencies of one-party rule. And what better way to understand the purpose of protecting the freedom of expression than to reflect on the fact that dissidents in China were imprisoned for publishing this document that dared, among other things, to advocate for the freedom of expression?

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