03/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Charter 08: Chinese Activists Question Effectiveness Of Popular Democracy Charter

Jiang Qisheng was among the first to sign the pro-democracy manifesto -- which calls for a radical departure from China's current one party system. In doing so, the 60-year-old Beijing writer put his freedom, his livelihood, even his life at grave risk.

But he had lived through the massacres of Tiananmen Square, and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and had great hope in the power of this document to provoke change.

"I think the charter has addressed very well what our people have tried to accomplish for over 100 years: to change the system from tyranny to democracy," said Jiang in a telephone conversation through a translator.

Since the document first started making rounds in mid-December more than 8,000 others have added their names. Many of them were ordinary people - businessmen, factory workers, and students - who never before had been involved in democracy movements or politics.

But not all China human rights activists and scholars share his sense of optimism about the petition, known as Charter 08. While most agree that a petition signed by so many ordinary people inside China is a historic first, there is no consensus on its importance or that the new movement will succeed.

Sasha Gong, a 55-year-old former political prisoner who lives in northern Virginia, believes that Charter 08 is geared toward the older generation of dissidents, like herself and Jiang, who lived through Tiananmen and the Cultural Revolution.

"I don't see something in there very inspiring," Gong said. "What will change China are new ideas, like how to talk to young people."

Not only does she see the content of the charter as being old fashion, but even the idea of petitions strikes Gong, whose political blog has gotten over 2 million hits, as somewhat old school.

"I am not saying that it's useless, but...signing petitions might not be the right way forward."

The charter calls for a complete restructuring of China's political system including an end to single-party rule. It also demands full recognition of human rights, freedom of speech and the introduction of direct elections. It is based on Charter 77, a similar democracy manifesto written by scholars in Czechoslovakia in 1977, twelve years before the fall of communism.

The manifesto has been criticized by other activists -- like Ciping Huang, executive director of Weijing Sheng Foundation, a Virginia-based organization pushing for human rights in China -- as not going far enough in recognizing past events.

"The charter doesn't even mention Tiananmen Square," Huang said, incredulously and with a yell. "That's why I won't sign it. This is an event that everyone should know about but its not even mentioned."

The government has detained one of the charter's authors, Liu Xiaobo, but so far it appears to have left most of the signers alone.

Huang says this proves that the charter's demands are weak.

"China is on the brink of revolution, and this charter is far too moderate," said Huang.

But most China scholars acknowledge the significance of a petition that has pierced through the nation's formidable Internet monitoring apparatus and captured the attention of many ordinary citizens.

"It has covered most of the ideas that have been mentioned in different ways through different channels for a long time in China, " said Xiao Qiang, editor-in-chief of China Digital Times in Berkeley, Calif.

"The new interesting thing is millions of people are still spreading it online and promoted the signature movement."

The enormous economic and social changes that have swept China in the past fifteen years have brought greater affluence for many. But it has also highlighted dramatic disparities between the poor and a growing middle and upper class.

This leaves an open question about the future for a country that is still communist in theory.

"Symbolically it shows that China is at a crossroads. Chinese people will be faced with a decision of how to go forward in the next decade," said Chris McNally, a professor at University of Hawaii who specializes in the political economy of China.

McNally has doubts about the petition's effectiveness, but his view on the charter -- that it is a symptom of the nation searching for a way forward -- is shared by Jiang, the Beijing writer.

Jiang also believes that although the economy is growing quickly, the looming income disparity and environmental damage are issues that cannot be solved by the current political system.

He sees freedom of speech and political transparency as the only ways to address these problems.

"If scholars and regular citizens can express the problems openly, then perhaps we can find some solutions."

With reporting by Kate Zhao.