Magna Carta, the 800th Anniversary Conference

About 100 scholars from China and around the world joined a conference on The Past, Present and the Future of the Rule of Law at Renmin University’s Centre for Common Law on 05-06 September 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, exploring its historical impact on constitutional development around the world and assessing China’s own track record so far.

Magna Carta Conference 2015

One leading Chinese scholar, Professor Li Buyun of the Institute of Law the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the conference in his view 30-50 years were needed to achieve the rule of law in China but that good progress was being made, aided by last year’s decision by the ruling Communist Party at its 4th Plenum to develop the rule of law within the context of unchallenged one-party rule.

Professor He Jiahong, the director of the Centre for Common Law, said that in his view although China now had a system of well-written laws, the main problem was that the country needed to build a stronger culture of obeying the law, especially among officials. An expert on anti-corruption methodology himself, Professor He said the government’s crackdown on corrupt officials over the past few years had been a good thing for promoting the rule of law, but he added that “People in power generally do not like the rule of law”. He said the Chinese legislature was working on a new anti-corruption and various questions needed to be resolved before it could be implemented.

The Executive Vice-President of Renmin University, Professor Wang Liming – the number two in the University hierarchy and a former Dean of Renmin Law School – expressed his support for the conference at the opening. He deemed the Magna Carta a symbol of modern political order that restricted public power and protected private rights – a sentiment which he said was echoed in the newly revised Legislation Law of the PRC.

Over 30 international delegates attended the conference, which was jointly organised by the Common Law Centre at Renmin Law School and the Great Britain China Centre. Some foreign experts expressed surprise at the extent of free debate taking place on politically sensitive issues such as constitutionalism, in the context of discussion on Magna Carta itself which was a document forced upon England’s King John in 1215 to curb his abuse of absolute power.

Professor Han Dayuan, Dean of the Law School and himself a constitutional lawyer, took care to link the conference not only with Magna Carta but also with several other important anniversaries taking place during the year, including celebrations in the same week to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two and the allied victory over Japan. A military parade was held in Beijing two days before the conference started. Dean Han had invited several eminent Japanese and Korean jurists to speak at the conference. “This year marks the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War,” he said in his opening speech. “It is also the 110th anniversary since the investigation into Western constitutionalism made by five ministers of the Chinese Qing dynasty in 1905.”

Dean Han pointed out that it was also the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. He said the conference had been designed to explore how to seek consensus on the common destiny of mankind within the context of all these anniversaries “so as to collectively maintain justice, peace, the rule of law and human rights and values.”  

“The Magna Carta enacted 800 years ago is an origin of rule of law for humankind, the legal civilisation established by which has been the value jointly shared by mankind,” he said. “Although the meanings and functions of rule of law are constantly changing and there are multiple ways of developing the rule of law, the core ideas concerning rule of law arising from the Magna Carta have been unchanged.” The heritage of Magna Carta was that freedoms could be defended through the rule of law and the separation of powers to limit abuse, he said. “Rule of law... is a fundamental guarantee to protect human life, dignity and security and jointly foster peace.”

“The value of rule of law reflected by the Magna Carta is far-reaching not only in the United Kingdom(but) can influence the entire development process of rule of law in human society.”

Dean Han said the rule of law had become a cohesive global social consensus, but the human race was, he said, fearful and uneasy. He said that with economic development and science and technology, human dignity and freedoms were easily marginalized in the presence of what he called strong material civilisation. People the world over faced a conflict between their desire for the rule of law and the reality of the rule of law. The lessons of World War Two meant that jurists needed to rethink profoundly how to defend justice and peace by using the power of the rule of law.

Dean Han noted that China’s first conference on the Magna Carta was held in Beijing in 1915 on the 700th anniversary, and asked the audience to consider what the rule of law would be like in future, by the 900th and 1000th anniversaries. He said the conference would enhance the consensus among experts and promote “the development of rule of law and human rights.” 

Sir John Laws, Lord Justice at the Court of Appeal at the Royal Courts of England and Wales, gave an insightful talk on “the Paradox of Power”. He remarked that China was in the process of merging its own legal history with values enshrined an extend report the Magna Carta to create a new Chinese legal order. The paradox he spoke of was that while governments require significant power in order to carry out their functions and serve a country’s citizens properly, their power is actually strengthened when it is limited by a robust legal system. When power is unchecked or unlimited, it becomes a detrimental, frightening force capable of halting or reversing a nation’s progress in development. This paradox necessitates rule of law.

Professor Zhu Jingwen of Renmin University spoke on the topic of “the Universality and Particularity of the Rule of Law”. He divided rule of law into three complementary parts: rule of regulation, rule of equality and the so-called “rule of good law”. For the rule of good law to exist, it requires the minimum accepted standard of what constitute “good law”, which in his opinion was the effective control of power.

The above speeches set the tone for much discussion between the Chinese and international scholars from the UK, Canada, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, Germany, and the US. 

Following the conference, a select series of submitted papers will be published in the English-language journal published by Renmin Law School, Frontiers of Law in China, which is disseminated widely in China and among international legal communities.

For a detailed account of the conference proceedings, please find attached an extended report by Renmin University of China.

Date posted: 24 November 2015

Categories: Judicial Dialogues, Centre for Common Law, Rule of Law

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