One of China's most prominent dissidents went on trial today, accused of advocating the overthrow of the state. His defenders say all he did was to help organize a petition drive last year, a petition that called for basic rights and democracy. Though 10,000 people signed, he is the only one on trial. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ANTHONY KUHN: We support Liu Xiaobo, shouted one of a handful of demonstrators who showed up along with police, journalists and diplomats outside a Beijing courthouse this morning. Inside, Liu pleaded not guilty to the charges. His wife, Liu Xia, said that given his long history of activism, she had worried that authorities could easily paint her husband as a ringleader of the movement for political reform called the Charter 08.

Ms. LIU XIA: (Through translator) I told him that if they arrest anyone first, it'll be you. If they search anyone's home, it'll be ours. And if anyone goes to jail to visit you, it'll be me. I said I'm so sick of passing the days that way. He said, okay, I'll only sign the charter.

KUHN: The charter does what Chinese intellectuals often do. It looks at China's modern history and examines why successive governments from republicans to nationalists to communists have failed to deliver a modern and democratic state.

Most of the charter was written by Zhang Zuhua, a former Communist Youth League official. He says that both Chinese liberals and conservatives agree on the need for political reform.

Mr. ZHANG ZUHUA: (Through translator) The question is: Given China's specific conditions, how do we achieve what we call universal values. In the past two or three decades, nobody has addressed this question very systematically.

KUHN: In China, leftists are considered conservatives and it's the rightists who are liberals, the opposite of how it is in the U.S. Charter 08 specifically reflects the views of China's liberals, or rightists, and its prescriptions would sound familiar to Americans - separation of powers, federalism and competitive elections at all levels of government.

Liu Xiaobo's former lawyer, Mo Shaoping, who also signed the charter, says all this is just part of a normal debate about forms of government.

Mr. MO SHAOPING (Attorney): (Through translator) From a legal viewpoint, federalism or a unitary state are just different ways to organize a country. They have absolutely nothing to do with overthrowing the state.

KUHN: Among the charter's leftist or conservative critics is Zhang Hongliang, an economist at the Central Institute of Nationalities in Beijing. He believes that the charter's drafters are just elitists who only want the kind of democracy that they can control and profit from.

Mr. ZHANG HONGLIANG (Economist, Central Institute of Nationalities): (Through translator) Charter 08 calls for freedom of the press and the right to organize political parties. Leftists support this. But if we had freedom of the press now, China's media would be completely dominated by rich people and foreigners.

KUHN: Jung himself advocates a return to the more egalitarian days of Chairman Mao's rule. For now, debate about Charter 08 is mostly limited to intellectual circles, since authorities have censored any mention of it from the media and the Internet.

In an interview last year, Liu Xiaobo said this is why the plight of China's dissidents remains largely unknown.

Mr. LIU XIAOBO (Co-author, Charter 08): (Through translator) Things that are not exposed in the domestic media cannot generate the pressure of public opinion. Dissidents can only rely on pressure from foreign governments, media and NGOs.

KUHN: China has rejected U.S. and European governments' recent calls to release Liu. A verdict in his case is expected at a time when many foreigners' attentions will be elsewhere - on Christmas Day. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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