Documents on Democracy

Issue Date April 2009
Volume 20
Issue 2
Page Numbers 179-184
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On December 10, the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, more than three-hundred Chinese citizens issued Charter 08, a document calling for a political system based on human rights and democracy. It is modeled on the famed Charter 77 signed by more than two-hundred Czech and Slovak intellectuals in 1977. Excerpts from Charter 08, translated by Human Rights in China, appear below:

Preamble: This year is the hundredth year of China’s Constitution, the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the thirtieth anniversary of the birth of the Democracy Wall, and the tenth year since China signed the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. After experiencing a prolonged period of human rights disasters and a tortuous struggle and resistance, the awakening Chinese citizens are increasingly and more clearly recognizing that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance. A “modernization” bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity. Where will China head in the twenty-first century? [Will it] continue “modernization” under this kind of authoritarian rule? Or [will it] recognize universal values, assimilate into the mainstream of civilization, and build a democratic political system? This is a major decision that cannot be avoided.

The monumental historic transformation in the mid-nineteenth century exposed the decay of the traditional Chinese despotic system and ushered in the most “unprecedented and cataclysmic change in several thousands of years” in all of China. The Self-strengthening Movement (c. 1861–94) sought the improvement of China’s technical capacity. The defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) once more exposed the anachronism of the political system. The Hundred Day Reform touched upon institutional innovations, but was a failure in the end because of [End Page 179] the cruel suppression of the die-hard clique. On the surface, the Xinhai Revolution (1911) buried the imperial system that had lasted for more than 2,000 years and established Asia’s first republic. But, limited by the historical factors determined by internal trouble and external aggression, the republican political system lasted only for an instant, and despotism quickly returned.

The failure of imitating mechanical innovation and institutional renewal prompted deep reflection among the people of the nation on the roots of this cultural sickness, which resulted in the “May 4” new culture movement under the banner of “science and democracy.” Because of frequent civil wars and invasions by external enemies, the course of China’s political democratization was forced to stop. The course of a constitutional government was initiated again after the victory in the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–45), but the result of the civil war between the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) and the Communist Party caused China to sink into the abyss of the totalitarianism of the modern era. The “New China” established in 1949 is a “people’s republic” in name only. In fact, it is under the “Party’s dominion.” The ruling power monopolizes all the political, economic, and social resources. It created a string of human-rights catastrophes such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, June 4, and attacks on nongovernmental religious activities and on the rights-defense movement, causing tens of millions of deaths, and exacted a disastrous price from the people and the country.

The “reform and opening up” of the late twentieth century extricated China from the pervasive poverty and absolute power in the Mao Zedong era, and substantially increased private wealth and the standard of living of the masses. Individual economic freedom and social privileges were partially restored, a civil society began to grow, and the calls for human rights and political freedom among the people increased by the day. Those in power, as they were implementing economic reforms aimed at marketization and privatization, also began to move from a position of rejecting human rights to one of gradually recognizing them. In 1997 and 1998, the Chinese government signed two important international human-rights treaties. In 2004, the National People’s Congress amended the Constitution to include language to “respect and safeguard human rights.” And this year, [the government] has promised to formulate and implement a “National Human Rights Action Plan.” However, this political progress stops at the paper stage. There are laws but there is no rule of law. There is a constitution but no constitutional governance. And there is still the political reality that is obvious for all to see. The power bloc continues to insist on maintaining the authoritarian regime, rejecting political reform. This has caused corruption in officialdom, difficulty in establishing rule of law, and no protection of human rights, the loss of ethics, the polarization of society, warped economic development, damages in the natural and human [End Page 180] environments, no systematic protection of the rights to property and the pursuit of happiness, the accumulation of countless social conflicts, and the continuous rise of resentment. In particular, the intensification of hostility between government officials and the ordinary people, and the dramatic rise of mass incidents, illustrate a catastrophic loss of control in the making, and the anachronism of the current system has reached a point where change must occur.

II. Our Fundamental Concepts: At this historical juncture of the future destiny of China, it is necessary to rethink the last hundred years of modernization and reaffirm the following concepts: . . . .

Human Rights: Human rights are not bestowed by the state, but are rights that each person is born with and enjoys. To ensure human rights must be the foundation of the first objective of government and lawful public authority, and is also the inherent demand of “putting people first.” The past political calamities of China are all closely related to the disregard of human rights by the ruling authorities. . . .

Democracy: The most basic meaning is that sovereignty resides in the people and the people elect government. Democracy has the following basic characteristics: 1) the legitimacy of government comes from the people, the source of government power is the people; 2) government must be chosen by the people; 3) citizens enjoy the right to vote, important civil servants and officials of all levels should be produced through elections at fixed times; 4) the decisions of the majority must be respected while protecting the basic rights of the minority. In a word, democracy will become the modern tool for making government one “from the people, by the people, and for the people.” . . . .

In China, the era of imperial power has long passed and will not return; in the world, authoritarian systems are approaching the dusk of their endings. The only fundamental way out for China: Citizens should become the true masters of the nation; throw off the consciousness of reliance on a wise ruler or honest and upright official; make widely public civic consciousness of the centrality of rights and the responsibility of participation; and practice freedom, democracy, and respect for law.

III. Our Basic Standpoint: In line with a responsible and constructive citizens’ spirit toward the country’s political system, civil rights, and various aspects of social development, we put forward the following specific standpoints:

Amend the Constitution: Based on the aforementioned values and concepts, amend the Constitution, abolishing the provisions in the current Constitution that are not in conformity with the principle that sovereignty resides in the people so that the Constitution can truly become a document for guaranteeing human rights and [appropriate use of] public power. The Constitution should be the implementable supreme law that any individual, group, or party shall not violate, and lay the legal foundation for the democratization of China. . . . [End Page 181]

Election of public officials: The democratic electoral system should be fully implemented, with the realization of the equal voting right of one person one vote. Direct election of all levels of administrative heads should be institutionalized step by step. Free competition in the elections on a regular basis and citizen participation in the election of public officials are inalienable basic human rights. . . .

Property Protection: Establish and protect private property rights, implement a free and open market economy, protect the freedom of entrepreneurship, and eliminate administrative monopoly; set up a state-owned property management committee that is responsible to the highest legislative agency, initiate property rights reforms legally and orderly, make clear the property rights of owners and obligors, initiate a new land movement, advance land privatization, and strictly protect citizens’ (in particular, farmers’) land rights. . . .

IV. Conclusion: China, as a great nation of the world, one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and a member of the Human Rights Council, should contribute to peace for humankind and progress in human rights. But to people’s regret, among the great nations of the world, China, alone, still clings to an authoritarian political way of life. As a result, it has caused an unbroken chain of human rights disasters and social crises, held back the development of the Chinese people, and hindered the progress of human civilization. This situation must change! The reform of political democratization can no longer be delayed.

Because of this, we, with a civic spirit that dares to act, publish the “Charter 08.” We hope that all Chinese citizens who share this sense of crisis, responsibility and mission, without distinction between the government or the public, regardless of status, will hold back our differences to seek common ground, actively participate in this citizens’ movement, and jointly promote the great transformation of the Chinese society, so that we can establish a free, democratic, and constitutional nation in the near future and fulfill the dreams that our people have pursued tirelessly for more than a hundred years.


The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional group of fifteen countries, issued a statement on 10 January 2009 condemning the military coup in Guinea that followed the death of President Lansana Conté on 22 December 2008. On the same day in January, the organization suspended Guinea’s membership. Excerpts from the statement appear below:

The Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS Member States ended their extraordinary summit on Guinea in Abuja on Saturday, 10th [End Page 182] January 2009 by rejecting a military-led transition in Guinea and barring the country’s military leaders from attending meetings of all decision-making bodies of the Community in accordance with the provision of the 2001 regional Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.

The principles enshrined in the Protocol, which are subscribed to by all the Member States, call for zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means and require that accession to power should only be through free, fair, and transparent elections.

The Summit urged the ruling National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD) to take immediate steps to restore constitutional order and resolved to remain engaged with Guinea in order to ensure the early restoration of the country to constitutional order.

In this regard, the Summit proposed modalities for restoring the rule of law in the country, including the requirement that the military junta establish a National Transitional Council, a legislative body of civilians and the military, that will work for the attainment of the objectives of returning the country to democracy by holding free, fair, and transparent elections in 2009.

Members of the CNDD, the transitional Prime Minister, and Members of his government will not be eligible to contest the elections which must be held before the end of 2009.

Moreover, the Summit called for the establishment of an inclusive Consultative Forum of all the country’s stakeholders that will reflect its ethnic, regional, and gender diversity and constitute a framework for dialogue to strengthen national cohesion.


John Evans Atta Mills of the opposition National Democratic Party won the presidential election in a runoff on 28 December 2008 against the ruling New Patriotic Party’s candidate Nana Akufo-Addo. (For more on this election, see the article by E. Gyimah-Boadi on pp. 138– 52 above.) Below are excerpts from Mills’s inauguration speech on 7 January 2009.

I wish to begin by acknowledging the presence of my two predecessors: former President Jerry John Rawlings and former President John Agyekum Kufuor. On behalf of our nation I salute you, Your Excellencies.

I recognize your invaluable experience and deep insight into matters of state, and you will be important reference points during my tenure of office as President. . . .

We have emerged from one of the most keenly contested elections in the history of our country. Our democracy has been tested to the utmost limit. Thanks to the steadfastness of the good people of Ghana, sovereign will has prevailed. We give thanks and praise to the Almighty. . . . [End Page 183]

I have always said that I will be President for all Ghanaians whether they voted for me or not, and without consideration for which part of the country they come from.

It will be my duty as President to heal wounds and unite our dear nation. I intend to pursue relentlessly all avenues for entrenching peace and unity in all parts of the country as I am enjoined by the constitution to do.


Iraq held provincial elections on January 31, with 51 percent of the population turning out to vote for nearly 15,000 candidates. The day was relatively calm despite the killing of five candidates and the explosion of two mortar shells. Both the UN Security Council and the Presidency of the Council of the European Union issued statements commending the conduct of the elections. The statements appear below:

UN Security Council:

The members of the Security Council welcome the holding of provincial elections in Iraq on 31 January. The members look forward to the announcement of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) certifying the election results, and express their appreciation to the Commission, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), and the Government of Iraq, for their dedicated work in preparing for these elections.

The members of the Security Council commend and congratulate the people of Iraq for demonstrating their commitment to a peaceful and democratic political process.

European Union:

The Presidency of the Council of the European Union closely followed the provincial elections held on 31 January 2009 and congratulates the people of Iraq for having successfully expressed their democratic will.

The Presidency appreciates that the elections were conducted in a competitive environment with freedom of expression widely respected across the country.

The conduct of the provincial elections and the significant voter turnout represent a key step in the national reconciliation process and prove the firm commitment of Iraq and its people to peace through democracy.

The Presidency hopes that the provincial elections will expedite the political transition essential for integrating important groups into the political process. We believe they lay a solid foundation for Iraq’s next set of elections, offering all Iraqis the opportunity to express themselves politically in a democratic and peaceful way. [End Page 184]