China and the Magna Carta

As a tribute to Sino-British relations, an exhibit of one of the early parchment copies of the Magna Carta was supposed to take place this week at Beijing’s Renmin University.  This is part of the 800th anniversary celebration of the great charter, originally signed in 1215 by King John of England.

Yet at the last minute, Chinese authorities decided it was too dangerous to bring the young people of Renmin U. (appropriately “People’s University” in English) into direct contact with the great charter.  Fearful it might inspire them to think about constraining the leader of China, Xi Jinping, the exhibit was instead held inside the British Ambassador’s residence.   People can still line up to see the great charter on display there, but it is not as easily accessible as it would have been on the Renmin U. campus.

This turnabout highlights the interesting paranoia about democracy and constraints on authority in China.  On the one hand, the authorities frequently denounce the human-rights violations occurring in American against urban blacks; and the turmoil and dysfunction of western democracies.  They claim the superior economic performance and stability of China are held up as clear reasons why it’s system works much better for China than any alternative.  All of this suggests the authorities are confident than an objective and open analysis would find that democracy is undesirable, or certainly not yet right, for China.

On the other hand, an objective and open discussion of alternatives seems to be the thing the authorities fear most.  The Chinese Communist Party has warned that western ideas such as “constitutional democracy,”  “separation of powers,” “multi-party competition” and other ways to constrain executive power and hold it accountable should never be discussed in China’s classrooms.

It seems that, whatever their pronouncements, China’s leaders fear that their people do want to hold them accountable, and to constrain their power.  Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign is above all an effort to prove that the party can hold its own members accountable, and therefore that none of the western democratic institutions are necessary.  Yet the very intensity of this campaign, its unpredictable reach, and the inability of those ensnared to have any appeal or accountability for those leading the campaign, show the problems in accountability below without accountability above.  In the words of the Party, this is rule “by law,”  but rule in which the very top leaders enforce the law according to their own judgment, not according to a higher standard — a constitution — to which they are accountable in turn.

The Party is therefore also fearful that the examples of Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the leadership is constrained by law and (in Taiwan but not yet Hong Kong) by elections for the head of state, will put ideas in the minds of mainland Chinese.  Chinese officials even recently tried to claim that Hong Kong’s chief executive, due to his special role for China, was above Hong Kong’s judges, legislators, and laws and accountable to Beijing but not to Hong Kong for his actions.  (This suggestion was swiftly disputed by Hong Kong’s judges and legislators).

Treatment of the Magna Carta this week shows the tensions in China’s position.  China knows it has to deal with other democracies in the world — Japan, the U.S., Britain, and at the moment Taiwan and Hong Kong.  It wants to understand these democratic societies and have good relations with them.  Yet it doesn’t want these foreign political systems to influence how China manages its own affairs.  So the Magna Carta can come to China — but only if it stays in its proper place, in a British setting, not at large in China’s universities.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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