Chinese visitor poses to mark Magna Carta's first visit to China
A Chinese visitor poses to mark Magna Carta's first visit to China.
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Mary Kay Magistad

China is rich in contradictions, accommodations and compromises. And so it went for the Magna Carta, when one of the surviving 17 copies from the 13th century made a tour of China in October to mark the Magna Carta's 800th anniversary.

The tour had been in the works for awhile and, originally, the Magna Carta was supposed to be displayed in public venues — a university in Beijing, a museum in Shanghai, a similar venue in Guangzhou — so anyone interested could see it. But at the last minute, plans changed, because government permission never came through. The compromise? The document was on display to those who registered in advance, on foreign territory — the British ambassador's residence in Beijing, the British consulate in Shanghai, the US consulate in Guangzhou.

Since all this was happening before and during Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to the United Kingdom, and the UK values its trade relationship with China, the British Foreign Office downplayed the last minute changes as matters of simple logistical convenience.

Xi Jinping's administration has stressed that the values embodied in the Magna Carta — especially the part about the ruler not being above the law — are dangerous Western concepts, inappropriate for China. The government has ordered Chinese universities not to allow discussions of rule of law, democracy, human rights or constitutionalism (the idea that leaders must follow the constitution, rather than bending it or outright ignoring it when it suits them), and even to stop using so many Western textbooks that take such rights for granted. Previous Chinese administrations have shown at least some interest in learning from Western approaches to rule of law; Xi appears more interested in making China's laws more efficiently serve the needs of the leadership. That includes new laws and regulations that allow more people to be legally detained for criticizing the government.

It was with this backdrop that a few dozen people rolled up to the British ambassador's residence in Beijing to catch a glimpse of the Magna Carta, during the three hours it was on display on a crisp October evening. They showed their IDs to a Chinese government embassy guard, beside a barricade with pointed spikes, put recently in front of many foreign embassies in Beijing. There were students of history, law and political science, librarians and archivists. They came in, stood in line, and when their turn came, gazed in fascination at the legendary document. They came out, as they'd gone in, with differing ideas about what the principles within the Magna Carta mean for China.  

"It really matters," said a 22-year-old political science major, who asked that his name not be used. "We must restrict the power of the government. Because sometimes, the government reaches beyond its boundaries and restricts people's freedoms." 

Others were less convinced.

"I think both cultures have pros and cons," said one female university student. "There is no need to compare which is better, or to say one has to learn from the other. They can complement each other. As for rule of law, I cannot say much.” She admitted she was seeing some differences in her classes, since the government issued its warnings against teaching 'dangerous' Western concepts. She then asked that she not be identified, because even talking about this was 'sensitive.'   

Young Chinese like this student have been taught from early on that the Chinese way of doing things is just plain different. China may have signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, but in more recent years, the Communist Party — which once rejected Confucianism as having made China weak — has embraced and promoted it, as a way to encourage ethical behavior, acceptance of hierarchy and obedience to authority. It argues that this philosophy is incompatible with the idea that no ruler is above the law, that people are inherently equal.  

And yet, Taiwan and South Korea have each been able to create robust modern democracies within their Confucian-influenced societies. In the debate about whether there are distinct Asian values that are incompatible with Western values, they've chosen synthesis. Within Mainland China, many people continue to believe China has, and should have, its own unique way of doing things. But a growing number of advocates of civil society, rule of law and basic rights say China can and should embrace what they say are universal values. The government has pushed back hard against this over the past couple of years, shutting down social media accounts of critics, increasing censorship and jailing civil rights lawyers. But civil rights lawyer Teng Biao, who is now in exile in the United States, after having been abducted and beaten up three times by Chinese public security forces, says every time there's a crackdown on civil rights lawyers, consciousness and activism on civil rights in Chinese society grows. 

"So the crackdown also reflects that the civil society is powerful, and has progress," he says. "If there is no progress, if the civil society is weak and meaningless, there’s no reason to issue such severe crackdown. ... They really want to destroy the whole civil society. But I don't think they can achieve their goal, because these people will not stop, will not keep silent."

The British team traveling with the Magna Carta in China had a diplomatic take on China's current relationship with the concept of rule of law.

"China is on a journey, like all countries are, particularly about trying to define what rule of law means, how it can be made practical for people," said Mark Gill, executive director of the Magna Carta Trust 800th Anniversary Committee. "And I think it’s very clear that every country in the world is facing this challenge. In Britain, for example, much of the debate at the moment is about access to justice, which is one of the principles that the Magna Carta tried to lay down. I get a sense that a lot of people here want, not to copy Magna Carta, because you can’t — a lot of it isn’t relevant today — but there’s a real interest in why it happened, what can we learn from it, what does it mean."

When it comes to that question, the debate in China continues. Are rule of law, democracy and human rights universal values, or Western values, incompatible with China's Confucian values? On that count, Mark Gill offered one more thought.

“Well, I will quote Eleanor Roosevelt who, in 1948, was instrumental in introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which China is a signatory of, as a result of the horrors of World War II," Gill said. "And she proclaimed a hope that the Magna Carta would be a document for all men everywhere. So I think there are some universal rights, which Magna Carta has helped to inspire, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that would say, we get them all right, all of the time.”

True. But at least recognizing that these rights exist, is a good start. In China, striving for that basic recognition remains a work in progress.

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