China Can't Arrest the Momentum of Charter 08

Official Chinese media announced Wednesday that Liu Xiaobo, one of China's most prominent intellectuals, had been formally arrested on suspicion of "inciting subversion of state power" following a six-month detention. The eventual decision to arrest and charge him does not come as a surprise: It only confirms that the Chinese leadership is becoming more paranoid in its handling of dissent at a time of intensifying social, political and moral crisis.

Mr. Liu first became famous for his activism during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, but his recent arrest reveals a lot about the state of political change in China today. Based on the facts publicly available, Mr. Liu's only "crime" appears to be that he exercised his constitutional right to free speech in a political system still unable genuinely to tolerate dissent. Mr. Liu was a co-author of Charter 08, a clear, bold and persuasively worded call for political and legal liberalization, and he was detained just two days before the document's release last December. The "subversion" crime with which he has now been charged makes a mockery of the civil rights -- including freedom of speech -- that the Chinese Constitution professes to safeguard. These rights often contradict the principles of Party Rule and lack effective protection in China.

In 2004, a commitment to protecting human rights was written into the Chinese Constitution. At that time some still hoped China might be on the way to a more liberal system through gradual, top-down legal reforms. But in the following years, the prospects of further liberalization of the system closed down. It was as though the party-state had come to realize how untenable its current hold on power would be under genuine rule of law. As cases of rights violations and government corruption accumulated in the midst of economic boom, the leadership decided to change its approach to these problems, from better protecting citizen rights to more comprehensive authoritarian repression. Courts have been reminded that they must serve "the Party's cause" and "social stability." Human-rights lawyers have been obstructed, harassed, subjected to cruelty and disbarred. Petitioners have been beaten, detained and even put in psychiatric institutions.

Yet the voices of dissatisfied citizens have grown stronger and louder: The Internet is burgeoning with citizen-journalists uncovering new cases of corruption and official venality. More streets and fields have become scenes of labor and land-rights protests as more citizens have taken the freedom at least to demand justice.

It was a sense of growing crisis, of "now or never," that led to the production of Charter 08, which was modeled on the Czechoslovakian Charter 77. "This is a historic moment for China," the drafters wrote. "The decline of the existing system has reached the point where change is no longer optional." Charter 08 appealed to many citizens. One of the thousands of Chinese signers, understanding full well that she could face severe consequences, wrote that she signed it "after a good cry."

By formally arresting Mr. Liu, the authorities have set another sign of assertive return to an authoritarian political model that emphasizes Chinese characteristics and leaves no room for "universal values." Mr. Liu is almost certain to join the ranks of dissidents previously convicted of "inciting subversion," among them, the disappeared human-rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and the imprisoned activist Hu Jia. What could now save Mr. Liu from an unjust conviction and prison sentence would be a political, not a judicial, decision. But the party-state has yet to understand the full power of the ideas it is so anxious to suppress.

Ms. Pils is assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law.