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October 14, 2015

Chinese activists urge Xi Jinping to learn from Magna Carta

The Guardian
Tuesday 13th October. Tom Phillips in Beijing.
Click here to read the original article as it appeared on the Guardian website.

Civil rights campaigners hope arrival of ‘Great Charter’ of 1215 will act as reminder to president about abuses of state power.

Chinese activists have urged President Xi Jinping to visit a rare exhibition of Magna Carta in Beijing, after the text, which some celebrate as a cornerstone of modern democracy, went on display as part of commemorations of its 800th anniversary.

A 1217 version held by Hereford Cathedral, one of only 17 surviving 13th century texts of the “Great Charter”, was put on show at the British ambassador’s residence on Tuesday. It will head to Shanghai and Guangzhou later in the week.

British officials have hailed Magna Carta’s arrival as the latest milestone in a “golden era” of UK-China relations during which Xi will pay a state visit to Britain next week.

Mark Gill, the head of the Magna Carta 800th anniversary committee, said he hoped to boost awareness and understanding of the text, which was issued in 1215 by King John of England and is held up as symbol of governmental accountability and individual freedoms. Fewer than one in five people in China had even heard of it, Gill claimed.

As the Magna Carta went on show, Chinese activists called on Xi – who has been accused of launching an unforgiving crackdown on dissent – to go to see a text the British Library has called “a potent, international rallying cry against the arbitrary use of power”.

“I very much hope that Xi can go and see [the exhibition],” said Yu Wensheng, an outspoken attorney who was among those targeted during a continuing roundup of civil rights lawyers.

Yu said Magna Carta’s presence in China “should serve as a reminder to [Xi] and the leadership that cracking down on lawyers is wrong and futile”.

Liu Shihui, another civil rights lawyer, noted Xi often name-checked famous pieces of writing including Hemingway and Dostoyevsky. “I hope he can spend some time reading Magna Carta,” Liu said.

Sir Martin Davidson, the chairman of the Great Britain China Centre in Beijing for the exhibition’s launch, recognised King John’s text was arriving at a sensitive time. A political chill has descended on Beijing since Xi came to power in 2012 and a severe crackdown is under way.

“One wouldn’t be surprised that it is slightly uncomfortable because I think China is struggling with some of those very big issues about what is the relationship between the state and the law, what comprises the state,” he said.

Many Chinese were interested in Magna Carta because it symbolised the moment at which “the king became subject to the rule of law and the king’s power was, if you like, constrained by the nature of the rule of law”, Davidson said.

But he denied bringing the document to China was an attempt to preach to Beijing. “I don’t think there is any point in saying: ‘We’ve got a system, just copy it.’ That’s not going to happen.”

During a speech in June marking Magna Carta’s 800th birthday, the UK prime minister, David Cameron, celebrated the text as a symbol of “liberty, justice, democracy [and] the rule of law”.

“All over the world, people are still struggling to live by the rule of law and to see their governments subject to that law. The countries that have these things tend to be the long-term successes. Those who don’t tend to be the long-term failures,” he said.

Experts say such ideas will be low on the agenda when Xi’s state visit begins next Tuesday. The British chancellor, George Osborne, recently vowed to make Britain China’s ”best partner in the west” and activists accuse London of falling silent on Beijing’s human rights record to avoid damaging business ties.

Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat in China and the author of a forthcoming book on Xi, said Britain’s China policy was clearly being dictated by the Treasury, with thorny issues such as human rights pushed to one side.

“[Xi Jinping’s visit] is going to be remorseless and relentlessly about parting the Chinese and their money. That is really what we are interested in,” Brown said, pointing to plans for Chinese investment in British nuclear power plants and infrastructure.

China expects Britain to roll out the red carpet during Xi’s visit next week, which involves events in London and Manchester.

But it is unclear how welcome Magna Carta is in Beijing. Plans to put the text on show at the capital’s prestigious Renmin University were unexpectedly scrapped. Asked if Chinese authorities had prevented it from being publicly displayed there, Sir Martin said: “Not that I’m aware of. There simply wasn’t the time to put in place the right mechanisms,” he said.

Additional reporting by Luna Lin



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