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Magna Carta Tour Beset With Last-Minute Venue Changes In China

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we have some news about a relic of the past, the Magna Carta. Those words mean great charter in Latin. The famous document was written by British feudal lords in 1215 to curtail the powers of their king. It's considered the founding document of constitutional government, and a rare copy of the Magna Carta is currently on a worldwide tour to celebrate the eighth centennial of the document. It's now in China.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It was supposed to be displayed in museums in Beijing and Shanghai, but the Chinese government apparently had other ideas. They canceled the exhibits. The Magna Carta will now be confined to the British Embassy and Consulate. New York Times reporter Mike Forsythe is in Hong Kong. He tells us Chinese officials have so far offered no explanation.

MIKE FORSYTHE: Knowing the political backdrop here and the fact that it's not happened just once but twice now within the space of a week and a half really causes you to wonder what's really going on.

GREENE: Forsythe has a guess.

FORSYTHE: China is obviously not a democracy, and the Magna Carta is the foundation, in so many ways, of the legal system and the, you know, rights and liberties that we enjoy in Western countries.

INSKEEP: What's wrong with that? Well, two years ago the Chinese Communist Party released something it called Document Number Nine, a list of what the party considers perils facing China, and those perils included constitutional democracy.

FORSYTHE: We know this is what they're worried about - what they fear could undermine Communist Party rule, so from that, you can kind of guess as to why this 800-year-old document might be making these leaders a little bit nervous.

INSKEEP: And that even includes one written in Medieval Latin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.