Cynics, and sometimes realists too, dismiss the power of ideas. Tyrants don’t. The latest evidence comes from today’s New York Times, where we learn that a planned public display of Magna Carta at a museum at Beijing’s Renmin University has Chinese officials “running scared.” Accordingly, “the exhibit was abruptly moved to the British ambassador’s residence, with few tickets available to the public and no explanation given.”
While much of the world is celebrating the 800th anniversary of this muniment of English and American liberties—a cornerstone for constitutional government—“such a system is inimical to China’s leaders, who view ‘constitutionalism’ as a threat to Communist Party rule,” the Times reports. And that it is, as I detailed some time ago in a chapter contrasting the Chinese and American constitutions. Indeed, the very name “Magna Carta” is forbidden in China, the Times notes:
In 2013, the party issued its “seven unmentionables” — taboo topics for its members. The first unmentionable is promoting Western‐style constitutional democracy. The Chinese characters for “Magna Carta” are censored in web searches on Sina Weibo, the country’s Twitter‐like social media site.
A representative of the British Foreign Office said the decision to display Magna Carta at the residence was “based purely on administrative and logistical practicalities.” As we say on this side of the pond, “Yeah right.” Doubtless, that response too would get you in trouble in today’s China.