Ian Buruma: China’s Best Hope
In terms of its immediate impact, it is true that Charter 08 will hardly make a ripple in the pond of Chinese politics. The government will not even discuss the Charter’s ideas, let alone do anything to implement them. But this is no reason to call it irrelevant. In 1977, few people would have predicted that Havel would one day preside over a Czech democracy. He and his fellow dissidents were a tiny minority, too. A liberal-democratic China may not come soon, but after Charter 08 no one can deny that many Chinese desperately want it.
The expression of this desire is especially important now that the world is gripped by a terrifying economic crisis. Widespread economic distress is never without political consequences. Xenophobic populism is on the rise in Europe. President Barack Obama will have a difficult time curbing resentful protectionism in the United States. Japanese might revert to angry nationalism. Nowhere, however, are the political and social consequences of an economic slump more potentially destabilizing than in China.
This is because the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power can be justified only by continued rapid economic growth, without which workers and farmers will lose their jobs, and the urban middle classes their chance of increasing prosperity. The economic boom is the only source of legitimacy that the one-party state has left.