My Magna Carta Moment: Gao Yu and the LSE taking money from the Chinese government

Ronan L Tynan

The Magna Carta has come to represent the rule of law, curbs on state power and the civil liberties and human rights we enjoy today. But Wednesday night (June 10, 2015) at the launch of a book that touched on that historical legacy by Prof. Francesca Klug, (‘A Magna Carta for All Humanity’) I was reminded that a considerable struggle took place to secure them in the first instance. Indeed, on June 15, 1215 the “rebel” Barons extracted from the tyrannical King John agreement to the Magna Carta at virtual “gun point,” and the ongoing battle to maintain our rights even in democratic societies is one that requires constant vigilance – the attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act in Britain but one example.

At the book launch – which took place in the London School of Economics I was struck by a tremendous sense of complacency, or maybe more correctly an apparent lack of awareness of what it takes to defend human rights, especially in situations where there are no institutions available to secure their enforcement – as applies say in China. I had China on my mind because under President Xi Jinping’s very harsh crack down on freedom of expression Gao Yu 71, a grandmother in poor health and one of the country’s most courageous journalists was given seven years in prison just for doing her job. I had also just read journalist John Sweeney’s letter to the London Review of Books in which he warned about the risks to freedom of expressions of British universities taking money from the Chinese government – citing the £863,537.91 the London School of Economics got from President Xi’s government to establish a Confucius Institute. Against that background, I asked Prof. Klug in the Q & A session about the importance of activism, especially in cases where pressure is needed to secure the release of people like Gao Yu, who have no other means to secure their release? And in that context, I enquired if she thought it appropriate for the LSE to be taking money from the Chinese government when it is locking up courageous journalists like Gao Yu? I was quite taken aback by Prof Klug’s reply when she said she agreed with me; would have to refer my question to higher authority as she was retiring; and if I remember correctly would also be taking to the “barricades!” in her retirement.

President Xi Jinping’s government sentenced Gao Yu to seven years for allegedly leaking what can probably now be described as the Chinese Communist Party’s implicit rejection of everything the Magna Carta represents, and which has come to be known rather crudely as ‘Document No 9’. However, there is no doubt Gao Yu did not leak it, not least because no evidence was produced at her “trial”; and in alleging it was a “state secret” the Chinese government only served to underline the absurdity of the case against her. This is because the document was so widely distributed by the time she was charged it would have had the status of a best seller if it had been commercially published.

Document No. 9 was a very widely circulated internal CCP document that warned members against the dangers of even allowing discussions of what it determined as the seven evils and included such taboo issues as universal values, human rights, press freedom, constitutional democracy, “historical nihilism” (the Chinese Communist Party’s past mistakes – seriously!), all of which are perceived to represent an existential threat to the Party’s survival. In short, Document No. 9 specifically repudiates everything the Magna Carta might be said to symbolically represent and a key part of President Xi’s bid to restore the “purity” of the Party’s dictatorship.

But should the London School for Economics, or any others universities, that subscribe to academic independence and freedom of expression be taking money from the Chinese government, especially at a time when it is vigorously engaged in a campaign to suppress those values as illustrated by the imprisonment of journalist Gao Yu, and indeed Nobel Laureate and writer Liu Xiaobo?

Ronan L Tynan

Twitter: @RonanLTynan


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