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Running from Runnymede: Why Beijing lives in fear of Magna Carta

By Doris Fu

In commemoration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (Latin for “Great Charter”), the British Government is running a wide-ranging series of events, including a world tour of an original edition of the document (one of only four existing examples).

Exhibitions of Magna Carta were going well in Europe and the United States. Unfortunately, the situation was not quite the same in China.

The display of this 800-year-old legal artefact was due to go on display in Beijing’s Renmin University, but at the last minute, the exhibition was abruptly cancelled and later moved to the British Ambassador’s residence, with few tickets available to the Chinese public. An exhibition scheduled for October 2015 in Shanghai was also removed from a public venue and switched to the British Consulate (the Chinese authorities claiming that the decision to relocate was based on “administrative and logistical practicalities”).

In the meantime, searches for “Magna Carta” were blocked on Weibo with only the message: “According to relevant laws and regulations, ‘Magna Carta’ search results cannot be displayed.” Fortunately for us here, the charter arrived in Hong Kong and was shown to the public from 11 to 14 November 2015.

Hereford Cathedral’s Chancellor Canon Chris Pullin points to a replica of a Magna Carta charter, considered to represent the foundation of rule of law in the West, during a preview ahead of its public exhibition in Hong Kong on November 10, 2015. Photo: AFP/ Philippe Lopez.

Hereford Cathedral’s Chancellor Canon Chris Pullin points to a replica of a Magna Carta charter, considered to represent the foundation of rule of law in the West, during a preview ahead of its public exhibition in Hong Kong on November 10, 2015. Photo: AFP/ Philippe Lopez.

Magna Carta is recognised as one of the most important legal documents in the development of modern democracy, because it created the concept of rule of law, and enumerated what later came to be thought of as human rights.

The charter introduced fundamental ideas on the limits of executive power; access to justice; and due process. One of its most famous clauses stated: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”

Magna Carta exercised a strong influence on the US Constitution and the US Bill of Rights. In Hong Kong, Magna Carta has been cited in numerous court decisions, most recently in 2014 by the Court of Final Appeal (Ghulam Rbani v Secretary for Justice). In a speech in December 2014, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma said that the underlying principles of Magna Carta – judicial independence, equality, and respect for fundamental human rights – are timeless and essential to Hong Kong’s well-being.

Geoffrey Ma

Geoffrey Ma. Photo: Stand News.

The current tour provides people from across the world an opportunity to get a close-up view of the historical document and learn about what it represents, so as to let more people understand the legacy of Magna Carta.

Seen in this light, it is easy to understand why this 800-year-old document might have touched on the nerves of the Chinese authorities. Democratic values like separation of powers, rule of law, and human rights – ideas encapsulated in the document – are exactly what the Communist Party considers as dangers to China, which is in the midst of an ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers, dissident activists, and civil society groups.

British officials have hailed the arrival of Magna Carta in China as a milestone in “the golden year of U.K.-China relations”. But to China, having the Magna Carta presented in her cities could simply be diplomatic courtesy.

The reality is that the Chinese government fears the political values enshrined in Magna Carta. It cannot tolerate even a display at a university, lest it sow “Western” notions of rule of law into the minds of Chinese students and young intellectuals. It is clear that the last minute venue change, which limited the opportunity for the public to see the document, was motivated by political concerns.

mall xi jinping queen

A procession welcoming Xi in the UK. Photo: Now TV screencap.

President Xi Jinping recently concluded state visits to the United States and the United Kingdom. During his visit to the US (by contrast to the UK visit) there was no ceremonial 103-gun salute and no glittering royal banquet. What was memorable in the minds of those who support democracy and human rights was Hillary Clinton’s incisive tweet: “Xi hosting a meeting on women’s rights at the UN while persecuting feminists? Shameless.”

To me, this truthful comment by a US politician was far louder than the 103-gun salute accorded to Xi in the UK (which, ironically, is the birthplace of Magna Carta). It pithily highlighted the continuing and regrettable failure of the Chinese government to implement the values enshrined in the Great Charter.

Doris Fu is a final-year law student and member of the Progressive Lawyers Group.

Running from Runnymede: Why Beijing lives in fear of Magna Carta