Magna Carta in Hong Kong after China controversy

An original of the Magna Carta dating from 1217 is displayed at Sotheby's in Hong Kong on Nov 10, 2015.
An original of the Magna Carta dating from 1217 is displayed at Sotheby's in Hong Kong on Nov 10, 2015.PHOTO: EPA
The only surviving copy of King's Writ, a letter sent by King John to royal officials announcing the terms of Magna Carta in 1215, is displayed in Hong Kong on Nov 10, 2015.
The only surviving copy of King's Writ, a letter sent by King John to royal officials announcing the terms of Magna Carta in 1215, is displayed in Hong Kong on Nov 10, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS
People looking at the Magna Carta at an exhibition at the British Consulate in Shanghai on Oct 24, 2015.
People looking at the Magna Carta at an exhibition at the British Consulate in Shanghai on Oct 24, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - The Magna Carta went on display in Hong Kong on Tuesday, after it courted controversy during the China leg of the historic document's worldwide tour.

British officials in Hong Kong defended the exhibitions in the Chinese mainland, which saw the display of the charter - considered to represent the foundation of rule of law in the West - switched twice from public venues to British diplomatic premises where ordinary Chinese citizens have limited access.

"We were really delighted that thousands of people in mainland China came to see the Magna Carta," said Ms Caroline Wilson, the British Consul General for Hong Kong, when asked for comment on the venue changes.

Ms Wilson added that nearly 20,000 people came to see the ancient document in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Considered a cornerstone of liberty, modern democracy, justice and the rule of law, the concepts in the English charter also contributed to legal systems around the world, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the US Constitution.

But the ideas enshrined in the Magna Carta - which means "Great Charter" - are a sensitive topic in China, where the ruling Chinese Communist Party maintains control over the legal system and enforces the law unevenly.

During the charter's sojourn in China, searches for the Chinese word for Magna Carta were blocked on Sina Weibo, a microblogging service similar to Twitter. Search results were returned with the message: "According to relevant laws and regulations, 'Magna Carta' search results cannot be displayed."

The version of the ancient document on display is one of only four existing examples of the charter and is on a world tour to mark the 800th anniversary of its signing by England's King John on July 15, 1215.

It will be exhibited at auction house Sotheby's gallery in Hong Kong for four days.