In December 2008, 303 Chinese activists, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, issued "Charter 08," a petition calling for greater human rights and democratic freedoms in China. An English translation by the Hong Kong-based NGO Human Rights in China is republished here with permission. The translation was first published in China Rights Forum, the organization's quarterly journal.
This year marks 100 years since China’s [first] Constitution, the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Democracy Wall, and the 10th year since the Chinese government signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Having experienced a prolonged period of human rights disasters and challenging and tortuous struggles, the awakening Chinese citizens are becoming increasingly aware that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, republicanism, and constitutional government make up the basic institutional framework of modern politics. A “modernization” bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives people of their rights, rots away their humanity, and destroys their dignity. Where is China headed in the 21st century? Will it continue with this “modernization” under authoritarian rule, or will it endorse universal values, join the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic form of government? This is an unavoidable decision.
The tremendous historic changes of the mid-19th century exposed the decay of the traditional Chinese autocratic system and set the stage for the greatest transformation China had seen in several thousand years. The Self-Strengthening Movement [1861–1895] sought improvements in China’s technical capability by acquiring manufacturing techniques, scientific knowledge, and military technologies from the West; China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War [1894–1895] once again exposed the obsolescence of its system; the Hundred Days’ Reform  touched upon the area of institutional innovation, but ended in failure due to cruel suppression by the die-hard faction [at the Qing court]. The Xinhai Revolution , on the surface, buried the imperial system that had lasted for more than 2,000 years and established Asia’s first republic. But, because of the particular historical circumstances of internal and external troubles, the republican system of government was short lived, and autocracy made a comeback.
The failure of technical imitation and institutional renewal prompted deep reflection among our countrymen on the root cause of China’s cultural sickness, and the ensuing May Fourth  and New Culture Movements [1915–1921] under the banner of “science and democracy.” But the course of China’s political democratization was forcibly cut short due to frequent civil wars and foreign invasion. The process of a constitutional government began again after China’s victory in the War of Resistance against Japan [1937–1945], but the outcome of the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists plunged China into the abyss of modern-day totalitarianism. The “New China” established in 1949 is a “people’s republic” in name, but in reality it is a “party domain.” The ruling party monopolizes all the political, economic, and social resources. It has created a string of human rights disasters, such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, June Fourth, and the suppression of unofficial religious activities and the rights defense movement, causing tens of millions of deaths, and exacting a disastrous price from both the people and the country.
The “Reform and Opening Up” of the late 20th century extricated China from the pervasive poverty and absolute totalitarianism of the Mao Zedong era, and substantially increased private wealth and the standard of living of the common people. Individual economic freedom and social privileges were partially restored, a civil society began to grow, and calls for human rights and political freedom among the people increased by the day. Those in power, while implementing economic reforms aimed at marketization and privatization, also began to shift 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.2 In 2004, the National People’s Congress amended the Constitution to add that “[the State] respects and guarantees human rights.” And this year, the government has promised to formulate and implement a “National Human Rights Action Plan.” But so far, this political progress has largely remained on paper: there are laws, but there is no rule of law; there is a constitution, but no constitutional government; this is still the political reality that is obvious to all. The ruling elite continues to insist on its authoritarian grip on power, rejecting political reform. This has caused official corruption, difficulty in establishing rule of law, the absence of of human rights, moral bankruptcy, social polarization, abnormal economic development, destruction of both the natural and cultural environment, no institutionalized protection of citizens’ rights to freedom, property, and the pursuit of happiness, the constant accumulation of all kinds of social conflicts, and the continuous surge of resentment. In particular, the intensification of antagonism between the government and the people, and the dramatic increase in mass incidents, indicate a catastrophic loss of control in the making, suggesting that the backwardness of the current system has reached a point where change must occur.