BEIJING, Dec. 10 -- One of China's most prominent human rights activists has been arrested after publication of an open letter to the government from hundreds of prominent Chinese intellectuals, according to his wife and a colleague. The document, published Tuesday on the Internet, proposes extensive political reform, including an end to one-party rule.
The unusually bold appeal, released a day before International Human Rights Day, has struck a discordant note here amid the Chinese government's attempts to paint a picture of progress as the country prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its policy of reform and opening up.
Police arrested veteran dissident Liu Xiaobo, suspected of organizing the petition, late Monday at his Beijing home. His wife told reporters that several policemen had arrived with an arrest warrant about 11 p.m.; some took him away, she said, and the others stayed through the night to search the house and confiscate computers, books and other belongings.
Another prominent signer of the document, political theorist and activist Zhang Zuhua, was arrested and detained at the same time but was released the next morning after a lengthy interrogation, he said. His house was also searched and belongings confiscated. Zhang said Liu is being detained on suspicion of "inciting subversion of state power."
More than 300 Chinese citizens signed the petition, called Charter '08, which began circulating on the Internet on Tuesday morning. They represent a broad swath of Chinese society, including government officials, lawyers, journalists, dissidents, artists and rural leaders, and they come from every corner of the country.
The charter's authors pegged its release to Wednesday's 60th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it takes aim at faults in China's authoritarian political system. It calls for change in 19 areas, including a new constitution, an independent judiciary, freedom of assembly, election of public officials and stronger guarantees for personal freedoms. The name Charter '08 borrows from the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia in 1977, in which several hundred intellectuals published a daring challenge to Soviet rule.
"We stand today as the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics," the document reads. "Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby constricting China's own development but also limiting the progress of all of human civilization. This must change, truly it must. The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer."
Liu, 53, has been jailed before. The former philosophy professor at Renmin University in Beijing and current director of the Independent Chinese PEN Center spent 20 months in jail for his support of the 1989 student protests at Tiananmen Square. In 1996, he was sent to a labor camp for three years for criticizing the Chinese Communist Party. Most recently, he was one of a number of Chinese citizens detained for several days in early July as part of a crackdown on political dissidents before the Beijing Olympics.
Zhang, reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, would not confirm his role as an organizer on a phone line that he indicated he thought was tapped. But he said Charter '08 had begun as a group effort in September, with many signers reading early drafts and insisting on revisions before they signed it.
Zhang said his police interrogators had told him that they were under great pressure from above to crack down on dissent as the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre approaches in June. "The way things are in China today, if we expect to make any progress on human rights, the pioneers are often going to have to lose their own human rights first," he said.
"I have my own opinion on one-party dictatorship, but that doesn't mean I want to subvert state power," he said. "It actually shows how patriotic I am."
News of the arrests nearly coincided with the publication of an interview in the state-run media with the director of China's State Council Information Office, Wang Chen, who said the country had made "historic progress" in the field of human rights. He also acknowledged that there were "still many problems and difficulties" but cautioned other countries not to intervene in China's internal affairs.
One of the charter signers, lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, said Wednesday that the attitude was shortsighted. "Of course, China's human rights conditions have improved," he said. "That's clear just from the fact that I'm telling [a reporter] what I think about all this. But this incident only proves how far China still has to go."
Police also broke up a rally of about 30 people outside the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday morning. The demonstrators said they were marking International Human Rights Day by calling for more open government and more attention to corruption problems.