The release last week of a human rights manifesto signed by hundreds of mainland scholars, lawyers and ex-officials has prompted a stern response from Chinese authorities who have jailed one signer and contacted dozens.

Charter 08, which takes its title and inspiration from the “Charter 77” document that demanded rights for Czechoslovakia in 1977, called for an extensive list of rights in China, including free speech, freedom to form political parties, an independent legal system and direct elections. The 4,000-word document was released during a time of several sensitive anniversaries, including 100 years after the promulgation of China’s first constitution, 60 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 30 years after Beijing’s “Democracy Wall” movement. The charter was first signed by 303 intellectuals living in China, a number that has since grown to more than 3,000.

On December 8, the day before Charter 08 was posted on a U.S.-based Chinese web site, Beijing police arrested Liu Xiaobo, a dissident and one of the document’s authors and signers. His lawyer, Mo Shaoping, says Liu is still being held incommunicado over a week later, and police have not revealed his whereabouts. Liu’s supporters fear he could be charged with the offense of “inciting subversion of state power.” Beijing-based activist Hu Jia was convicted of the same in April and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last week that Washington was “deeply concerned by reports that Chinese citizens have been detained, interrogated and harassed” since the document’s publishing, and was “particularly concerned about the well being of Liu Xiaobo.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told journalists on Dec. 16 that the U.S. position was another example of an unwelcome “interference of other nations in China’s internal affairs.”

At least 39 signatories in Beijing, Shanghai and eight provinces have been questioned, trailed or had their movements restricted by police, says the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an activist group. “This is a big thing, if only measuring by the reaction of the authorities,” says Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for the group Human Rights Watch. “One thing the [Communist] Party is very worried about is to have the loyalty of the intellectuals and the academics.”

The document has reignited a debate that has recently bubbled through the commentary pages of Chinese newspapers over the nature of “universal values.” Opinion writers have argued whether pluralism is a western creation with limited application to China, or a political ideal for all nations. Columnist Sima Nan wrote on his blog that the charter was a dangerous attempt to promote a Chinese “color revolution,” referring to pro-democracy movements in Ukraine and Georgia.

Bao Tong, a former assistant to purged Communist Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang and one of the charter’s signers, acknowledged that it backed western values, but said that China had relied on similar ideas for reform in the past. “If studying the West is illegal, then we should arrest the people talking about the market economy, because that comes from the West,” he says. “We should arrest the Communist Party, because political parties come from the West.”

Bao, who is now retired and lives under close state scrutiny, says the charter had been compiled over several months with the input of several people who offered suggestions and revisions. It was still being revised when the arrest of Liu prompted its early release. Bao accused the authorities of arresting Liu to intimidate others who might encourage political reform. “If signing the charter is illegal, then all us 300 plus have broken the law,” he says. “It’s nonsense.”

The timing of the charter’s release is sensitive not just because of the significant anniversaries this year, but because the global economic slowdown has increased the potential for political unrest in China. Thousands of factories in the south have closed, and demonstrations by workers over unpaid wages have become a frequent scene in the regions of the country that have been driving China’s double-digit growth. China’s exports dropped last month for the first time in seven years, and as many as 9 million migrant workers are estimated to be returning home due to the slowdown. The World Bank and others say growth next year could drop to below 8%, a number that the government needs to maintain to prevent a destabilizing level of unemployment. Economists warn that even if China makes its 2009 targets, the first half of the year could see much slower growth than the second. And while this year’s sensitive anniversaries will be past, next June will mark another, the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

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