Plans to hold an exhibition displaying one of the four remaining copies of the Magna Carta at Renmin University in Beijing were unexpectedly scrapped at the last minute. With little warning the exhibition was moved to the British Ambassador’s residence in Beijing, where it was decidedly more inaccessible to its Chinese audience.
The exhibition is part of a seven-country tour celebrating the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, which was originally written and ratified in 1215.
Champions of constitutional government treasure the Magna Carta as the bedrock of today’s democracy.
While the document itself was drafted for the specific purpose of limiting the abuses of King John upon the English nobility at the time, its lasting legacy has less to do with the specific grievances listed in the document (which are oddly specific and largely irrelevant today) than it does with its implications. Concepts such as “law of the land,” “rule of law,” and “due process” have inspired political revolutions across the world from the United States to Taiwan.
Beijing nervous about Magna Carta. Is it the Welsh hostages bit? Or "evil customs relating to forests and warrens?" http://t.co/WUIxS7mtPd
— Austin Ramzy (@austinramzy) October 14, 2015
Although the British Foreign Office said that the decision to remove the Magna Carta from its intended exhibition at Renmin University was due to “administrative and logistical practicalities,” the timing of its removal has been seen as suspect.
Within China, the exhibition’s arrival in Beijing (and later in Guangzhou and Shanghai) coincides with a crackdown on dissident activists and civil society groups.
Furthermore, the concepts of “constitutionalism” and universal principles” that are enshrined within the Magna Carta are not viewed kindly by the Chinese Communist Party.
In 2013, the CCP issued “Document 9,” which listed “seven unmentionables” that are considered taboo. Number one was “Western Constitutional Democracy,” followed by the promotion of “universal values” that threaten “the foundations of the Party’s leadership.”
The British government has declared 2015 to be a “golden year” in terms of Sino-Anglo relations, and is hoping to woo Chinese investment. With President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK now less than a week away, some observers believe that it was likely deemed unwise to openly display a document enshrining values the CCP sees as heretical.
In an article in the Guardian, former British diplomat Kerry Brown expressed the view that “Britain’s China policy was clearly being dictated by the Treasury, with thorny issues such as human rights pushed to one side.” Citing plans for Chinese investment in British nuclear power plants and infrastructure projects, Brown claimed that President Xi’s visit “is going to be remorseless and relentlessly about parting the Chinese and their money.”
Despite pleas from Chinese civil rights activists imploring President Xi to read the document, it would appear that their calls have gone unheeded.
You don’t want a 13th-century document to be giving anyone ideas.
Learn about the Magna Carta via rap battle:
By Stanley Yu