Visitors look at the Magna Carta, one of only four surviving copies of the 1217 version of the document in existence, at the Residence of the British Ambassador in Beijing on Oct. 14. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

This year marked the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the "great charter" drafted in 1215 by a group of a rebellious English barons grumpy with their king. As WorldViews observed earlier this year, the Magna Carta — a set of edicts penned in Latin on sheepskin — is seen as a foundational text of the English nation, considered by some to be one of the first articulations of the rights of the individual and a template for modern constitutions and international conventions.

[Why the Magna Carta matters and why it doesn't]

To celebrate the document's eighth centennial, the British government has taken the Magna Carta on an international tour. But there was an unexpected hiccup in China.

A 1217 version of the Magna Carta was supposed to go on view this week in Beijing's Renmin University. But Chinese authorities apparently blocked its appearance there; the document went on display instead in the house of the British ambassador to a very limited number of guests.

An official with the British foreign office said the decision was made "based on administrative and logistical practicalities."

Observers have immediately seen the decision in the wider context of China's authoritarian politics. The country is is in the midst of an ongoing crackdown on activists and civil society groups. Communist party diktat specifically rejects reference to "constitutional democracy" or universal values — principles that the Magna Carta is credited with having, to a certain extent, enshrined.

Michael Forsythe of the New York Times explains further:

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.

The conspicuous decision to not present the Magna Carta at the university came just in advance of Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned state visit to Britain, where he will stay as a guest of Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. The visit, as my colleague Simon Denyer noted, is part of London's very concerted efforts to boost economic ties with the Asian giant.

Critics say those interests have obscured the need to be tough on Beijing for its record of domestic rights abuses and overseas expansionism. London's Times newspaper, as Denyer writes, called the decision to send the Magna Carta to China "a 'pathetically inadequate' gesture, arguing that the British government should take a far more robust approach to calling China out over its 'despotism.'"

The meek withdrawal of the document into the confines of the British ambassador's residence tells its own story.

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