Saturday, January 10, 2009

Charter 2008 and Solidarnost

In the two most mindboggling under-reported stories of December, apparently new opposition organizations have come together in both proto-dictatorial Russia and "communist" China.

The first, modeled on the Czech Republic's "Charter 77," is China's new "Charter 2008." Charter 77, for those who don't know, was a small group of marginalized, opposition intellectuals. They lacked widespread support--the Communist government's estimation was that there was a couple hundred intellectuals at the core, and maybe a few hundred more loosely involved individuals. They eschewed being a political party or union; they merely said they were interested in making sure that the Czechoslovak puppet government lived up to Basket III of the Helsinki accords, which the communists had made legally binding, and promised certain rights of self-determination and democratic rights.

Considering the power of the Chinese government and the lack of public organized outcry (with the exception of labor strikes that are increasing every year), it is not surprising that they are following the Czechoslovak model--pushing for reforms where possible without agitating the government, and dressed up in the legal and structural language of the existing government.

In China, the basis of this is Deng Xiaping (who succeeded Mao, and began the economic reforms that have created the unique and powerful Chinese economy of today), who outlined that within 50 years China should be democratic and capitalist--although it is clear that he didn't intend to transform China into the US. Rather, he was looking for a form of market communist that would be representative of the people. And this desire for both governance reforms and economic reforms (like glastnost and perestroika in Russia, but at a slower and more stable pace) might give room for Charter 2008 to exert a larger influence over time.

On the other hand, the second is modeled on Poland's "Solidarnosc" or Solidarity, the first non-communist labor union in a communist country. Using the political shield of the Polish Catholic Church (which did not exist in communist Czechoslovakia) and the government's reliance on the Gdansk shipyard, they attracted a mass movement of upwards of a million people, which were able to strong-arm the government at various points to accepting reform until, eventually, they became a part of government.

This model is the model that has been adopted in Putin's Russia, called "Solidarnost" there. Like in Poland, the goal appears to be to unite all of the opposition into one mass movement, to better coordinate their opposition to Putin. The question is whether Putin's Russia, which is moving away from representation, will be able to tolerate Solidarnost's existence, and if not whether he can effectively break them.

I don't believe totalitarian societies can remain totalitarian for very long. My hunch is that neither country is aiming for an entrenched, centralized, greedy totalitarianism like the ideological totalitarians (Communist Russia and the Warsaw Pact countries) or megalomaniacal totalitarians (Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il, etc.). Rather, they see totalitarianism as a tool of stability. The difference is that China is moving, at an intolerably slow pace, towards more democracy, whereas Putin is "correcting" the error that was democracy.

Still, both of these groups may have long-term impact. Charter 77 was written off at the time, and few would believe that within their lifetime they would rule Czechoslovakia (and then the Czech Republic; the Civic Forum largely ran Slovakia after the divorce). My hunch is that history will play out differently in China, where a slowly strengthening opposition is eventually drawn into an increasingly more open China until they become simply another party in the system; but Putin's Russia is only as stable as the brute force that he wields and his ability to stay on top of public opinion.

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