China Scraps Magna Carta Display Event at Top Beijing University

2015-10-15
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File photo of the Magna Carta.
File photo of the Magna Carta.
Public domain image.

An exhibition that was scheduled to display one of the Magna Carta original manuscripts at one of Beijing's top universities this has been canceled at the last minute, a move political commentators said reflected the ruling Chinese Communist Party's fear of the political implications of putting it on public view.

The ancient document, signed by King John on July 15, 1215 after a rebellion by his nobles and putting defined limits on his power, will now be held in a less public format at the British embassy.

The move came after Renmin University in Beijing said it was unable to gain official approval to exhibit it, the London Times quoted a university spokeswoman as saying.

The three-day viewing was relocated at short notice to the ambassador's residence based on "administrative and logistical practicalities," a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson told
Agence France-Presse.

Searches for "Magna Carta" in Chinese were unavailable on China's Twitter-like service Sina Weibo on Thursday, which returned only the message: "According to relevant laws and regulations, 'Magna Carta' search results cannot be displayed."

800th anniversary

The Magna Carta, which encoded a number of ideas about the right of common people to have access to natural resources, about the reasonable exercise of state power and the natural and ancient liberties of ordinary people, is currently on a world tour to mark the 800th anniversary of its signing.

"No freeman is to be taken or imprisoned or [deprived] ... of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined," the document pledges.

"To no-one will we sell or deny or delay right or justice."

It demands reliable witnesses be brought to support accusations made by agents of the state, grants "all its ancient liberties and customs" to the city of London and other towns, and limits the use of land appropriation to specific circumstances.

In a country where thousands of complaints are lodged daily against the ruling Chinese Communist Party for abuse of official power, forced evictions, land grabs and pollution of natural resources, the document could strike a jarring chord, or fuel the arguments of those who press for greater democracy and the separation of powers.

Li Xiaobing, director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, said the presence of the manuscript in Beijing has likely caused China's leaders some discomfort.

He said late supreme leader Mao Zedong had already made it clear that the people's democratic dictatorship was exactly that: a dictatorship.

"The party took political power from the barrel of a gun," Li said, quoting Mao's maxim. "Now, they talk about the rule of law, but it's really the rule of the will of the party, of the party leaders; it's
all about the party's position," Li said.

"It's all about going through the motions; they can have somebody arrested with a single phone call."

Dangerous political ideas

He said the public exhibition of the Magna Carta could be seen by some as an official endorsement of its contents.

"In terms of political considerations, exhibiting the Magna Carta at the People's University will be seen as a reflection of party policy, as a reflection of what propaganda line on western democratic values is being supported by its leaders," Li said.

"Moving the exhibition to the British Embassy is in effect a downgrade," he said.

"But the thing is already in the country, so what can they do? They can't just lock it up in a warehouse."

U.S.-based political commentator Liu Nianchun said Beijing had likely paid lip-service to the rare medieval manuscript.

"Of course, the U.K. must have had its own reasons for bringing the original manuscript of the Magna Carta to be exhibited in China: perhaps they hoped China would learn from their experience," Liu said.

"But perhaps China has just paid lip-service to it: what they say in public and what they are really thinking are two different things," he said.

According to Zhu Yongde, honorary professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the party may be worried that a public exhibition of the Magna Carta could give its young intellectuals ideas that it would rather they didn't have.

"China is very worried that the Magna Carta will act as a big filip to the Chinese democracy movement," Zhu said. "Especially to students and young people."

Reported by Yang Jiadai for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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