The Chinese constitution begins, "China is one of the countries with the longest histories in the world." It then dashes through imperial glory, humiliation at the hands of foreign powers and the partial triumphs of the Republican era before concluding:
After waging hard, protracted and tortuous struggles, armed and otherwise, the Chinese people of all nationalities led by the Communist Party of China with Chairman Mao Zedong as its leader ultimately, in 1949, overthrew the rule of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism, won the great victory of the new-democratic revolution and founded the People's Republic of China. Thereupon the Chinese people took state power into their own hands and became masters of the country.... The living standards of the people have improved considerably.
In an almost perfect reverse, Charter 08 lists the same historical episodes but concludes:
The Communist Party of China seized control of all organs of the state and all political, economic, and social resources, and, using these, has produced a long trail of human rights disasters, including, among many others, the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957), the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960), the Cultural Revolution (1966–1969), the June Fourth Massacre (1989), and the current repression of all unauthorized religions and the suppression of the weiquan rights movement. During all this, the Chinese people have paid a gargantuan price. Tens of millions have lost their lives, and several generations have seen their freedom, their happiness, and their human dignity cruelly trampled.
But in truth Chinese peoples' experiences run a wide gamut between the two narratives above. Why set the record straight and risk only setting it straight for a few people?
Of course, Charter 08 is important not because of its specifics, but because so many people felt comfortable signing it at all. Their courage speaks to a rising current of dissatisfaction among elite intellectuals (who have been bribed and coddled by the CCP since 1989), to the limits of technocratic authorities to inspire citizens, and to a changed balance of power between the Chinese government and its people.
The government's high-profile attacks on the document--Jia Qinglin's article in Qiushi, Hu's confusing statements about not "wavering" (bu zheteng), and Peking University's call for students to boycott Charter 08--have been combined with a curious reticence to hit the actual signatories, aside from a handful of people like Lu Xiaobo. The state simply can't do as much as it once could.
So, even if the broad masses of Chinese have not yet heard of Charter 08 and even if young nationalists are incensed by the document's mild references to a "federated republic," the document stands as a testimony to a changed environment.
For better takes on the document than mine, see Rebecca MacKinnon's post and Ronald Soong's response.