BEIJING: China marked international Human Rights Day on Wednesday with newspaper editorials and television commentaries hailing the country's "unremitting efforts" and "nonstop progress" in promoting free speech and individual rights.
It was also a busy day for public security officials, who were dispatched to quell a protest of about 40 people who rallied outside the gated headquarters of the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. After calling for free elections and demanding a crackdown on corruption for about 30 minutes, the demonstrators were herded onto buses and taken away.
For Liu Xiaobo, one of the most high-profile dissidents in China, Wednesday also marked the third day of detention for what friends and relatives say was his role in drafting a bold public letter that demands political, legal and constitutional reform. The document, published on the Internet and signed by 303 Chinese academics, artists, farmers and lawyers, was released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a product of the United Nations and a foundation for human rights laws around the world.
In recent days, the Chinese police have also detained several other signers, including Zhang Zuhua, a rights activist who was told the letter was a serious affront to the governing Communist Party. After 12 hours of questioning, Zhang was sent home, although the authorities kept his passport, four computers, some books and money.
"I told them this is just a civilian proposal and there's nothing to be afraid of," he said in a telephone interview shortly after his release. "But they said senior officials attach great importance to it. I don't think this is the end of it yet."
Human rights advocates said they were especially worried about the fate of Liu, who may be facing more serious charges of "inciting subversion of state power," a crime that carries a three-year prison sentence. It would not be Liu's first experience in the Chinese penal system. In 1989, he began 20 months in jail for his role in the pro-democracy protests near Tiananmen Square. In 1996, he was sentenced to three years of hard labor for criticizing the Communist Party.
Such experiences have done little to quiet Liu, 53, a former philosophy professor who directs the Independent Chinese PEN Center, an association of writers who advocate broader free speech.
The charter that Liu and others put together does not mince words. It describes the current system as "disastrous" and blames the government for "stripping people of their rights, destroying their dignity and corrupting normal human interaction." Among the charter's 19 recommendations are a new constitution, legislative democracy, freedom of religion and an independent judiciary.
"Authoritarianism is in general decline throughout the world," the document says. "In China, too, the era of emperors and overlords is on the way out. The time is arriving everywhere for citizens to be masters of states."
Pu Zhiqiang, a noted free speech lawyer and one of the signers, said the authorities should embrace the charter as a set of suggestions to help them reach the goals that have been annunciated in its own laws and directives.
"We're not saying anything new here," Pu said. "This is not some plot to overthrow the Communist Party."
He acknowledged, however, that the charter was making a big splash, and with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown six months away, the authorities are wary of any kind of public agitation.
"This only shows they lack confidence in their rule and are afraid to confront history," he said.
Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said he feared the prosecution of Liu would signal that the government is taking a harder line against political dissidents. In recent years, he noted, public security officials have largely tolerated Liu's advocacy work but the charter, whose signers included economists, journalists and labor organizers, may have crossed a line.
"It cuts across social classes and brings together people from all over the country," he said. "This kind of thing traditionally rings alarm bells in police headquarters."
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the charter or Liu's detention, saying he did not know about either of them. The state-run China Daily marked Human Rights Day with a sprawling opinion piece by Wang Chen, minister of the State Council Information Office.
The full-page article documents China's long pursuit of human rights, noting that the country has 229 laws and 600 administrative decrees that protect individual rights. In 2004, Wang wrote, China added "respecting and protecting human rights" into the Constitution.
"I firmly believe that so long as we unswervingly implement the constitutional principle of respecting and protecting human rights, constantly improve democracy and the rule of law, our society will become more harmonious and people will live a still better life," he wrote.
But he ended his essay with a warning that pushing China on the issue would poison international relations and harm the growth of human rights.
"All people of all countries should enjoy freedom and equality," he wrote. "But restrained by economic development level, cultural traditions and social systems, people have different understandings and demands with regard to human rights."