Charter 08 calls for an end to one-party authoritarian rule and lays out a vision for a rights-based society – an electoral democracy, under the rule of law, with equality for peasants and city-dwellers and protected freedoms of speech and expression.
Similar calls have been made before; all have failed to weaken the Chinese Communist Party's grip on power. But activists say this manifesto is significant in several respects.
First, thousands of citizens of all backgrounds – peasants, teenage netizens, prominent lawyers, former party members – have added their names to the petition, not just the usual gadflies. They reflect a minority unwilling to accept the party's vision for China.
Second, the Internet has vastly expanded the charter's reach, with no central organization. That makes it a new kind of threat to a government concerned about organized challenges to its rule.
"It's a testament to the power of the Internet," says Joshua Rosenzweig, of the Dui Hua Foundation, a group that promotes human rights in China. "[It's] allowed Charter 08 to galvanize and bring together a lot of people from different walks of life and locations."
Meanwhile, the government has gone after key players behind the document. Liu Xiaobo, a coauthor of Charter 08, was detained on Dec. 8, the eve of the charter's scheduled publication online. He is being held by authorities at a Beijing hotel, according to Human Rights Watch.