Magna Carta’s hush-hush tour of China

Last month, Chinese media was saturated with endless images of Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK, as he was shown being welcomed by royalty and being treated to an English pint. Breaking news reports carried all the latest details of Xi’s visit, while Chinese social media oohed and aahed over the reddest of red‑carpet welcomes and the Duchess of Cambridge’s dress.

The same media reception was not given to another political visit, arguably of comparable significance and certainly historically unprecedented. As part of Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary celebrations, original copies of the various charters (of 1215, 1217 and 1225) have been touring the world, and last week Hereford Cathedral’s copy of the charter (one of only four of the 1217 charters still in existence) was displayed in Shanghai. I was lucky enough to be working at the event, so I was able to nip in and take a few moments to look at the famous charter that has been at the base of the UK’s – and indeed many other countries’ –  political system.


The Hereford Magna Carta, 1217.  Picture:  Sam Nugée

But herein lies the problem: had it really been “on public display”, as the press release promised it would be, I would have been one of the thousands of tourists flocking to see it. Instead, it was quietly shown in a small room of the British Centre, which is home to the British Consulate General, Shanghai and is not open to the general public. The event, though well put-together, was only attended by a few Shanghai lawyers and friends of the British Centre. It’s a far cry from how it was originally advertised as being displayed: a public exhibition in the impressive Shanghai Tower, the new second tallest building in the world. The location for Magna Carta’s display in Beijing was changed even more dramatically: at the last minute, it was announced that Magna Carta would not be displayed at the prestigious Renmin University but instead at the British ambassador’s private residence.

Why, in such a “golden era” of Sino-British relations, was this thoroughly British document so demonstrably unwelcome? The reasons are palpably obvious, but no less depressing for being so. Whatever grandiose statements of partnership, friendship and cooperation were expressed during Xi’s visit, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not show much intention of adopting the ideals of rights and rule of law which appear in embryonic state in Magna Carta and underpin the UK’s, and much of the West’s, political ideology. And any hopes that Britain could showcase the charter, and perhaps thereby highlight its very different legal system in the process, never stood much of a chance of surviving the Chinese authorities’ disapproval.  Golden era or not, the CCP does not allow even its warmest friends to make that sort of public statement in China.

In fact, if anything China has recently been increasing its vigilance and defensive posturing against events it disapproves of, and Xi’s visit to the UK stands out as something of an exception in recent CCP history for its warmth and purple phrases of friendship. Just moments after Xi returned from the UK, Beijing was expressing its anger at the US navy’s decision to send a warship through disputed waters. A number of human rights lawyers have been detained, and outspoken academics such as Qiao Mu have been banned from teaching.  The CCP under Xi seems determined to reinforce its control of events both at home and, where it can, internationally as well.

The strongest sign of the political chill that has descended over Beijing is the CCP’s 2013 publication referred to as “Document 9”, a worrisomely harsh crackdown against human rights lawyers, media outlets, academics, and other such independent thinkers. Document 9, an ideological communiqué instructing Party officials to “thoroughly implement its suggestions”, warns of seven ideological foes facing the CCP, including “Promoting Western Constitutional Democracy” and “universal values” that threaten “the foundations of the Party’s leadership”. It also exhorted Party members to strengthen their resistance to “infiltration” by outside ideas.

None of this is too surprising, since it is no secret that the People’s Republic of China is a communist state. The hushed, smothered nature of Magna Carta’s visit to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and the brusqueness with which China demanded the neutering of Britain’s plans for showing it off were hardly out of keeping with recent developments and should not have come as a shock to British diplomats either in China or London. But it does prompt some questions about exactly what kind of government Cameron has been shaking hands with so warmly and publicly.

There were voices among the UK media worrying that the visit had made Britain look a little sycophantic, the praise too fulsome, the kowtowing too deep. A (Swedish) friend in Shanghai put it to me rather more bluntly, observing that the visit made Britain look completely desperate, to be so transparently willing to do business with such a country. Perhaps Cameron was hedging his bets for the future of Britain’s position on the world stage, with uncertainty hanging over both the strength of its relationship with the US and the continuation of its membership of the EU – if both of these turn out unfortunately for the government they may well be in need of whatever friends they can find.

It may have been a faintly courageous gesture to send Magna Carta into the lion’s den (or perhaps dragon’s den) of China. But by timing it to coincide with Xi’s state visit, Britain has scored something of an own goal. The relative coldness of China’s reception for Magna Carta was so predictable that Britain can hardly claim to have scored any serious points from the episode.

But it is the questions that Magna Carta’s brief encounter with China has raised about Britain instead, and its eagerness to do business with such a country, that deserve meaningful consideration.