An exhibition scheduled to display one of the few surviving 13th-century copies of Magna Carta at a top Beijing university was canceled at the last minute, a move political commentators said reflected the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s concern over the political implications of putting it on public view, Radio Free Asia reports.

An original copy of Magna Carta on view in New York City in 2007. The 800-year-old document written in Latin on sheepskin guarantees individual rights and holds the ruler subject to the law.
An original copy of Magna Carta on view in New York City in 2007. The 800-year-old document written in Latin on sheepskin guarantees individual rights and holds the ruler subject to the law.

The exhibition of the ancient document, signed by King John on July 15, 1215 after a rebellion by his nobles and putting defined limits on his power, was shifted to a less public format at the British embassy.

Renmin University said it was unable to gain official approval for the exhibition, 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 Thursday, which returned only the message: “According to relevant laws and regulations, Magna Carta search results cannot be displayed.”

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 like China which follows a different political system, this document could strike a jarring chord, or fuel the arguments of those who press for greater democracy and 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,” he said.

Conflict of ideas

Li 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.”

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

“Of course, the UK 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.”

Hu Jia, a prominent Chinese dissident, said he was not surprised that the exhibit was moved off the campus. He said that Renmin University had close ties to the Communist Party’s training academy and that the principles the document stood for were contrary to the party’s.

The shift of the exhibition venue took place just a week before China’s president, Xi Jinping, is scheduled to make a state visit to Britain, the first by a Chinese leader in a decade.

The British government has labeled 2015 a “golden year” in ties between the two countries, and it is eager to attract Chinese investment.
Magna Carta’s China tour is seen as part of a deepening of ties.

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