Magna Carta runs afoul of Chinese censors

The exhibit's sudden move from a large university to a smaller venue may speak volumes about Beijing's new crackdown on democratic ideas.

Mark Schiefelbein/ AP
Chinese visitors take in a display of the Magna Carta, one of the only four surviving copies, at an exhibit at the British Ambassador's residence in Beijing. The document was originally scheduled to appear at Renmin University.

Magna Carta, the 1215 British document credited with establishing individual rights and the rule of law, is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year with an “ambitious world tour” of seven countries. However, it seems organizers were too ambitious when they arranged to display one of the world’s four remaining copies at Renmin University in Beijing this week: The exhibit was hastily relocated to the British Ambassador’s home, where tickets proved hard to come by. 

According to the The New York Times, the British Foreign Office put the move down to “administrative and logistical practicalities.”

However, observers were quick to point out that a document the Times called the “cornerstone for constitutional government” would hardly be welcome in China’s current political climate.

President Xi Jingping has presided over a sweeping crackdown on dissidents, which encompasses not just protesters, but academics.

The administration’s targets are laid out in the so-called “Document 9,” a party communiqué first distributed in 2013. First on the list: “Western Constitutional Democracy,” which is labeled a “capitalist” notion: “The concept of constitutional democracy originated a long time ago, and recently the idea has been hyped ever more frequently.”

Number Two: “Promoting 'universal values' in an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of the Party’s leadership.”

Although Magna Carta itself was bogged down in details like establishing a standard width of haberject (apparently a cloth for monks’ cassocks), its main ideas proved more enduring: briefly, that tyrannical King John needed to stop doing whatever he pleased.

Thanks to its defense of individual rights and due process, the charter could now be considered “the most important bargain in the history of the human race,” in the words of British politician Daniel Hannan. But individual rights, due process, and challenges to authority are not exactly Mr. Xi’s cup of tea.

The charter’s relocation this week continues its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t history in China: despite being a topic at academic conferences, including at Renmin University itself, searches for the charter on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter alternative, come up empty.

US colleges with degree programs in China have insisted that their faculty do not answer to Chinese censors. “We would pack up and leave,” if academic freedom were under threat, NYU Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman told Congress this June. 

But the firing of high-profile faculty at Chinese universities, such as democracy advocate Xia Yeliang, indicate that Chinese professors and students face a different reality. Writing about Peking University and several others that signed an international pact on academic freedom, the New York Times editorial board concluded that the government censorship “makes a mockery of its claim to academic freedom.”

One of censorship’s chief goals may be a fait accompli: it's unclear whether Chinese students even care about their limited information. 

Despite the presence of informants, most students seem neutral, even sympathetic, toward the Great Firewall encircling their campuses, according to Harvard student, journalist, and China native Helen Gao. Coming from China’s new middle-class, they may “feel they have little to gain, but much to lose” by challenging the status quo, she wrote in a letter to the UK's Prospect Magazine.

It’s tempting to view Magna Carta’s aims as similarly “accompli,” but that would be hasty, Harvard historian Jill Lepore noted in the New Yorker: “Due process is a bulwark against injustice, but it wasn’t put in place in 1215; it is a wall built stone by stone, defended, and attacked, year after year.” 

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