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October 14, 2015

Magna Carta not welcome at Beijing university

The Financial Times, 14th October 2015.
By Lucy Hornby in Beijing.
Click here to read the article as it appeared on the FT website.

Eight centuries after the Magna Carta was issued, it is still making waves — this time in Beijing, where nervous authorities have blocked an exhibition of a rare parchment copy of the “foundation of freedom” charter. Far from cementing a touted “golden era” of Sino-British relations, authorities apparently worried that the Magna Carta, which threw medieval England into a spin by curbing the monarchy’s powers, would sow unwelcome ideas into the minds of Chinese students.

The exhibit, which was to have helped kick off next week’s visit by President Xi Jinping to the UK, is now nestling in the quieter halls of the British ambassador’s residence rather than Beijing’s Renmin university campus.

China’s view of the rule of law chafes somewhat with that espoused by the Magna Carta, described by the late English barrister Lord Denning as “the greatest constitutional document of all times — the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.
China is promoting its own rule of law while in the throes of a political consolidation under Mr Xi that has led to tighter controls over civil society, the media and academics.

Observers quip that China’s vision is closer to “rule by law”, where an authoritarian state exerts its own power through laws and courts rather than itself being subject to those laws, as enshrined in the Magna Carta.

The charter itself, signed by England’s unpopular King John in 1215 and handing justice and the right to a free trial to all, contains provisions also found in China’s constitution. Indeed, the Magna Carta is called “Da xian zhang” or “Great Constitution Charter” in Chinese.

However, the term “Constitution” is sensitive in modern days, after the ruling Communist party squelched progressive lawyers’ efforts to force it to adhere to China’s own laws, a movement known as “Constitutionalism”.

A leading figure in that movement, lawyer Xu Zhiyong, is serving a prison sentence on charges of “disturbing public order” after he tried to organise a public campaign for officials to reveal their wealth.

The eleventh-hour switch of venue for the Magna Carta, on loan from Hereford Cathedral, was forced after Beijing’s approvals failed to materialise. “There are some formalities they needed to go through if we wanted to display it,” said a scholar affiliated to Renmin university.

Some Chinese students in the long line outside the residence said they had skipped class to see the document. But for history graduate student Liu Yongxi the change of venue was welcome.

“I think its even better to see it here,” she said. “You have a stronger sense of tradition, of Britishness.”

Earlier in September Renmin university did manage to hold a seminar on the Magna Carta and rule of law, attended by more than 100 Chinese and foreign scholars including the former president of China’s Supreme Court.

Additional reporting by Owen Guo.



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