Hidden document?

magnacarta w

“All over the world, people are still struggling to live by the rule of law and to see their governments subject to that law. The countries that have these things tend to be the long-term successes. Those who don’t tend to be the long-term failures.”

Thus intoned David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, during celebrations of the Magna Carta’s 800th birthday in June. Signed by King John in 1215, the Magna Carta is celebrated in Western political theory as the first contractual format of the notion that the law stands above the government. King John had fallen out with his barons and was forced to accept that he could no longer make the rules up as he went along. But today, as Cameron noted in the summer’s celebrations, the scrolls formalising John’s concessions are looked back on as a symbol of “liberty, justice, democracy [and] the rule of law”.

Whether these traditions mesh well with Chinese thinking is a moot point. But someone in the British Foreign Office still thought it would be a good idea to send one of the very few surviving versions of the Magna Carta on a China tour timed to coincide with Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK this week.

The parchment didn’t go on display as envisaged, however, as it was switched from planned exhibits in Beijing and Shanghai to smaller public shows on British consular premises. British officials blamed administrative practicalities, although members of the country’s press thought otherwise, speculating that the Chinese authorities were fearful that King John’s proclamation would sow unwelcome ideas in the minds of local students.

That sounds a little far fetched, even if some of the efforts to find out more about the document on weibo returned only the message: “According to relevant laws and regulations, Magna Carta search results cannot be displayed.”

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