China’s Human Rights Movement Could Soon Test Obama

Something is stirring in the world’s most populous nation, and it could eventually mark a watershed event in the march for human rights.

That something is called “Charter 08,” a manifesto that more than 300 Chinese scholars, writers and activists issued online in December, that more than 8,000 Chinese of all vocations have since signed, and that is the subject of intense debate on web sites, blogs and message boards. It calls for freedom and democracy, independent courts and direct elections.

This nascent human rights effort, which clearly has China’s leadership worried, could force President Obama soon to decide an issue that has vexed his recent predecessors – whether to side publicly with democratic activists in authoritarian societies and risk tension with their regimes, or avoid tension and focus on strengthening U.S. relations with those regimes.

Here’s hoping he sides with the activists, for presidents should proudly promote the values that make America a beacon of hope to so many – whether or not that ruffles some authoritarian feathers.

Charter 08 is modeled on the Charter 77 group in the former Czechoslovakia, a key component of the democratic activism behind the Iron Curtain in the 1970s and 1980s that helped bring down the Soviet Empire and transformed dictatorships into democracies across Eastern Europe.

In China, the democratic fervor is fueled not only by the regime’s day-to-day repression, but also, now, by the rising joblessness and dislocation that the global economic crisis has brought to this sprawling land.

Nor is Charter 08 the only sign of grassroots bravery. Activists are signing open letters, newspapers are writing editorials and individuals are blogging – all to promote a freer and more open society

All told, Charter 08 and the related activities represent the largest and most organized efforts to bring Western-style democracy to China since the Tiananmen Square protests of two decades ago.

China’s leadership is taking the challenge seriously. It has jailed activists suspected of helping to organize Charter 08, interrogated and harassed others, put still others under surveillance and used its firewall to try to block Internet users in China from online postings about the charter.

At their best, U.S. presidents have spoken to the unfulfilled aspirations of hundreds of millions of people around the world who have endured repression by some of history’s most authoritarian systems.

“Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” President Kennedy said in his famous “I am a Berliner” speech near the Berlin Wall. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.”

Visiting West Berlin nearly 25 years later and speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, President Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to fulfill his promise of a more open society: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

In this vital task of promoting American values, of putting the United States squarely behind democratic activists in repressive regimes, other presidents of recent vintage have performed less admirably.

Seeking not to make waves before an upcoming meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the mid-1970s, President Ford chose not to meet with famed Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

In an August 1991 speech to the Supreme Soviet of Ukraine as the Soviet Union was disintegrating – a speech that New York Times columnist William Safire later dubbed “Chicken Kiev” – the first President Bush urged Ukrainians to temper their impulses and not opt for “suicidal nationalism.”

Bush’s son, George W., had a mixed record on human rights promotion. In January 2005, he used his second inaugural address to promote freedom and human rights across the world; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed the message later that year in a bold speech in Cairo.

But Bush toned down his rhetoric soon thereafter and looked the other way when, for instance, Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak cracked down harshly on candidates who sought to replace him through the ballot.

Now, it is our new president’s turn to choose.

Obama has vowed to restore U.S. leadership around the world by working more closely with our allies and providing stronger support to the United Nations and other global institutions.

Fine. But U.S. leadership has many facets, not the least of which is the promotion of American values.

As leader of the free world, any U.S. president can energize human rights activists from Asia to Africa to Latin America. With his communications skills, Obama may have the greatest power to do so since Kennedy and Reagan.

He should take full advantage of the opportunity.

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