CHINA'S CHARTER 08 models itself on the Charter 77 group in the former Czechoslovakia, an alliance of dissidents whose powerful advocacy for human rights triumphed in the former Soviet bloc. But China's Charter 08 has a tool that Vaclav Havel and his colleagues never imagined: the Internet. While Soviet-era dissidents had to depend on smudgy mimeographs and Western radio stations to get their message out, Charter 08 has been able to use Web sites, e-mails and text messages -- despite the massive firewall operation of Chinese authorities.
Thanks to that technology, the new democracy movement has been able to amass a virtual crowd of supporters. As Ariana Eunjung Cha reported in The Post, more than 8,100 Chinese from all walks of life have signed the manifesto first issued by 300 artists and intellectuals last month. That makes Charter 08 the largest pro-democracy movement Beijing has known since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests -- and it demonstrates that the Communist Party's creaking totalitarianism has become intolerable for many people -- teachers, engineers, businessmen, farmers, construction workers.
The initiative has appeared at a crucial moment. Only months after flaunting its model of unfree capitalism at the Beijing Olympics, China's leadership is under severe pressure from the global economic crisis. Millions of workers have lost their jobs, and the state's social safety net is thin. Democracies under the same pressure have outlets for discontent: Protesters can clamor in Greece, Iceland or Latvia without threatening the foundations of the political system. In a country where free speech and assembly, free labor unions and even free worship are banned or severely restricted, the danger of destabilizing unrest is far greater.
China's authorities know that and are worried about it, but their counterproductive reaction has been to step up repression. Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic suspected of helping to organize the charter, was jailed shortly after its release and remains in detention despite growing international pressure for his release. The Post's article on the growing number of Charter 08 signatories was blocked by the regime's firewall. President Hu Jintao and his regime, who have made no movement toward liberalization during six years in power, appear to have learned little from the history of authoritarian regimes that have resisted popular pressure for change.
What that history shows is that the best response to a peaceful movement such as Charter 08 is dialogue. Rather than prosecuting Mr. Liu, the regime should free him and invite him to a discussion about the charter's 19 proposed steps for reform. A commitment to gradually implement political liberalization in partnership with a free citizens movement would make it far easier for the Chinese leadership to manage what is likely to be a year of crisis. Step One is easy: Stop trying to block Charter 08's dissemination on the Internet.