China is canceling a proposed display of the Magna Carta. As Forbes details:
Chinese authorities have refused to allow a copy of the Magna Carta to be displayed at an exhibit at Beijing’s Renmin University, the Financial Times reports.The exhibit was to be put on to honor President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.K. next week. It had to be moved to the British ambassador’s residence at the last minute, where students are still welcome to view the historic document. The university simply never received the necessary permissions to display the document, which is credited with curbing the powers of the British monarchy, the FT said.[..]The term “constitution” has been a delicate one in China as of late since the popularization of the progressive movement known as “Constitutionalism.” The goal of the movement is to get the ruling Communist party to adhere to its own laws. Following a public campaign calling for authorities to reveal their assets, a prominent figure in the movement, lawyer Xu Zhiyong, was imprisoned for “disturbing public order.”
This past June marked the 800th anniversary of the “Great Charter of the Liberties” (Magna Carta Libertatum), signed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. As several debates around the anniversary demonstrated, it has become popular, particularly on the left, to espouse a brand of revisionist history that pooh-poohs the importance of the Magna Carta. It’s not that big of a deal, this argument goes: It was an unimportant deal that empowered dead, white, male, feudal lords, and its high time we discarded the “myth” of its being the foundation of constitutional liberty. (This New York Times op-ed by Prof. Tom Ginsburg, of the University of Chicago, gives us a flavor of the tone. Example: “In reality, Magna Carta was a result of an intra-elite struggle, in which the nobles were chiefly concerned with their own privileges.”)
It’s true that the charter established neither liberty for all nor democratic governance in one fell swoop. But attacking it on those grounds misses the point. Unlike the French or Soviet Revolutions, which tried to right all wrongs at once and start over (in the French case, literally resetting the calendar to “Year 1”), British-American history has been one of painful, incremental progress, often privileging the elite first, with widespread enfranchisement coming slower than it should. But it has worked. The rule of law, enshrined in the Magna Carta, was developed in subsequent revolutions in the UK, then the U.S., then abroad. It was a significant step forward—and its “myth” (if that’s the right word for how it’s been looked to by subsequent generations) still has great power today.At least, so the Chinese government seems to think. President Xi’s government, which is in the midst of a major crack-down, has made sure to nix the Charter’s display. Maybe the autocrats know something the professors don’t?