Magna Carta in HK after controversial China tour

Hereford Cathedral’s Chancellor Canon Chris Pullin with the copy of the Magna Carta during a preview ahead of its public exhibition in Hong Kong.
Hereford Cathedral’s Chancellor Canon Chris Pullin with the copy of the Magna Carta during a preview ahead of its public exhibition in Hong Kong. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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

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

"We were really delighted that thousands of people in mainland China came to see Magna Carta," Ms Caroline Wilson, British Consul General for Hong Kong, said when asked for comment on the China venue changes. She added that nearly 20,000 people went to see the ancient document in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, describing it as "an excellent result".

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 United States constitution.

But the ideas enshrined in the Magna Carta - which means "Great Charter" - are a sensitive topic in China where the ruling 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, with results returning 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.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2015, with the headline 'Magna Carta in HK after controversial China tour'. Print Edition | Subscribe