The document advocates an end to Communist one party rule but found no favour with the leaders in Beijing.
The lead author of the charter Liu Xiaobo was subsequently jailed for 11 years, and when he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, the Chinese authorities tried to suppress the news.
Liu is still in jail, but Professor Xia continues to press the Charter 08 agenda, although a year ago he told an audience in Taiwan that he and his colleagues had given up hope.
Since then though there has been a change at the top in China, with Xi Jinping succeeding Hu Jintao as President and Communist Party leader, so are there fresh grounds for optimism among the reformists?
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Professor Xia Yeliang, economics professor, Peking University
XIA: I still don't have much expectation on the new leadership because during the Congress you see the political report expressed that no one take any kind of constitutional democracy or they don't want to take the rule of law, and they call that kind of institution as very bad or evil system or institution or evil road. So I think they just will persist in this kind of what we call totalitarianism , that's kind of their dictatorship, so we cannot endure that for long. I mean we should encourage civil society to move toward the goal, the goal is constitutional democracy, rule of law. So we have much more expectation than ordinary people, individual freedom, individual media, so the people can express by themselves rather than through the official media. And then scholars like me recommend all possible paths to the constitutional democracy and institutional change, I mean fundamental institutional change.
EWART: But isn't the difficulty that whilst you as an individual for a number of years now have been prepared to speak out and take whatever consequences may come your way, we've seen for example in the case of what happened to Liu Xiaobo, I mean he's still in jail as the main author of the Charter 08. How many more people are prepared to take the risk that he took and that you took? I imagine life for you can be quite difficult in China?
XIA: Yes that's true. A lot of intellectuals were arrested and put into prison and still a lot of people had the warning and they had the home arrests and a lot of interruptions with things like telephone tapping and following everywhere. So it's quite difficult for us to speak, especially speak in public. But still we think that we should persist on that and we think the risk is worthwhile because the risk first is something that's testing whether more and more people would like to join this kind of movement. If we give them the kind of example that intellectuals were not fearing anything, we would persist on our goal. So I think more and more people would like to join us in the future.
EWART: So do you regard yourself as something of an inspiration if you like? Do you find that particularly young people are increasingly prepared to at least as it were join the movement if not necessarily speak out as individuals?
XIA: Well we have a lot of media that see the young students they'd like to follow the ideas and express themselves like in Twitter, Facebook and other media. Of course in China it was blocked, but still they have some kind of methods to 'climb the wall,' so they can get access to the international media or some other ... I see a lot of ways to express. So I encourage these young students to pursue the kind of truth by themselves to get more and collect more data and truth. Also I encourage them to establish their independent economic status first. If one person cannot be independent economically it's hard for them to continue this kind of striving for political reform and other things. So I encourage them to have the career and job either outside or inside China. But still never forget your obligations and your responsibility to be involved in the civil society promotion.
EWART: But when as you did almost a year ago come out with this suggestion that there is no hope in terms of reform in China, how do you therefore sell the message when you're on record as saying you don't believe it can be achieved or certainly not in the near future?
XIA: I mean no hope is for official reform, there's no hope or expectation on that. But I still have the greatest expectation on the civil society, I mean every individual can express and try to promote a little bit. And if every individual joined, then this force could be huge. So I think it's not for somebody else, you strive for yourself, for your freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of publication, and maybe it's kind of a benefit for your next generation or the generation after generation. So it's something worth striving for, for life, not for a short moment. I don't encourage people to sacrifice immediately. I mean you can take a long period, long-term striving gradually, but you must fight for that. There's no gifts from the heaven. You cannot wait say just ten years then something will be better or good. Some people told us when GDP reached 10-thousand US dollars per capita that democratisation would come eventually. I don't believe that because we have to promote, we have to get the pressure on the official authorities, let them know that all people, individuals we need definitely the freedom, all kind of freedoms. So it's not kind of the gifts from the heaven or from the Communist Party, we should strive for that.
EWART: You make that point about economic status and when GDP reaches a certain level in China. It's predicted in the not too distant future China will become the world's number one economic superpower, it will overtake the United States. When it reaches that point, does that to some extent make the Chinese Communist Party almost untouchable?
XIA: Well there's some danger, peril I have seen that authorities try to be more nationalistic point of view, they have a very strong position towards other countries on some issues like territory, islands, they have a kind of tendency to reinforce the military equipment and military power. So it could be dangerous even to world peace. I had the warning for the western people, I said if the United States or the western countries try to make compromise with Communist Party, you might see similar things to Chamberlain before the Second World War. At that time also Stalin signed secret agreement with Hitler. So that means if you don't have a strong position, you don't try to stop them and then they are a grave danger for the world. I don't think the Cold War has ended, I think the Cold War is not over yet, the communist danger is still there. It could be getting much stronger.
EWART: So does that therefore mean that pressure that is being exerted on China from the west now, particularly in terms of economic reform, and obviously the concerns over the rivals over the territories in the South China Sea, that that pressure has to be maintained, that the west has to try and seek some sort of agreement on this front?
XIA: Well I think it's not only for small islands. If the Chinese get more confident and more military power because now the military are trying to establish more aircraft carriers. Then that means they want to have more international military influence. So with that kind of explosion I think China will consider itself as superpower, another superpower like the former Soviet Union. So that could be a great danger for the future of world peace. And also I think the economic aspect we saw superficial flourishment, but actually there's a lot of problems, structural problems and potential economic crisis, it could come soon, like inflation, I mean hyper-inflation and very serious unemployment situation and also the situation with the pension system. I mean a lot of people don't have sufficient coverage and support, I mean ageing people and medical care and unemployment protection. So there's a lot of social and economic problems in China. We use a lot of energy and we import a lot of natural resources from the whole world, but still we have serious pollution and the shortage of the technology and sufficient management personnel, so there's a lot of problems. It could come together with a social crisis, I mean economic crisis come with the political crisis and the social crisis.
EWART: So you seem to be painting a picture there where there may be a very fine line between the direction that China goes in, that it may become this economic superpower and potentially pose the sort of threat you've been talking about, or alternatively, the whole thing could come tumbling down because maybe the fundamentals are not as strong as they should be?
XIA: Yes, I mean sometimes they were draw a person's attention from the domestic problems with some international disputes like territory issues. They try to get less of the pressure from the domestic protests or those strivings.
EWART: Now some of the things that you said quite plainly would not find favour with the leadership back in Beijing. Do you have concerns for your personal wellbeing when you're in China, have you been threatened, have you been warned by officials?
XIA: Well yes some top police leaders talked with me and they had a kind of warning and tried to persuade me to compromise, to cooperate with the government authorities. I said it's not possible for me to give up my ideas and to change my position. I know there's some people in the leadership still they have some kind of idea for political reform, but very few, like Wen Jiabao and Wang Yang, party secretary in Guangdong province, but this time he hasn't entered the political bureau standing committee, that means he lost a much more bigger influence. But still I think there's some kind of hope and expectation for some of the officials they might respond in the future when the civil society is sufficiently strong, and there's some officials and party members that might also respond from the inside. So outsiders and insiders will come together and promote the civil society. So I mean the third force has come to each individual. If each individual chooses to strive for their own individual freedom, then by and by more and more people will join and that will influence officials and party members, eventually.