Boundaries of tolerance: Charter 08 and debates over political reform

Pitman B. Potter, Sophia Woodman

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Dissident intellectual Liu Xiaobo is now serving an eleven-year prison term for his role in the drafting and distribution of Charter 08, and the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to him has been denounced by the Chinese authorities as a "political farce."1 Yet many of the points made in the Charter have clear echoes in recent remarks on political and legal reform by academics and government officials, including Premier Wen Jiabao himself. This raises important questions about the boundaries of tolerance for proposals on political reform and discussion of politically sensitive issues more generally. An analysis of the scope and locations of recent debates over political reform indicates that the legitimacy of proposals for reform is determined not so much by their content as by the identity and status of the speaker, and the location and time of the speech. In this chapter, we first consider the compatibility of the content of Charter 08 with established laws, policies, and objectives, including recent pronouncements on political reform. We also point to ways in which the Charter challenges underlying norms and rules. Then we proceed to suggest some of the factors that determine the reception, legitimacy, and persuasiveness of particular proposals for reform, proposing the concepts of "segmented publics" and "differential rights" as ways of analyzing these. This examination of the debate over political reform provides some insight into broader conditions for freedom of expression, thus addressing the question posed by the drafters of Charter 08: "Where is China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it continue with 'modernization' under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system?"2.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLiu Xiaobo, Charter 08 and the Challenges of Political Reform in China
EditorsJean-Philippe Béja, Fu Hualing, Eva Pils
PublisherHong Kong University Press, HKU
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9789888139064, 9789888139071
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2012


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