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Why Is China Burning Books?
A report that Chinese officials destroyed books and religious texts at a state-run library has sparked online outrage.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: An account of government officials burning library books sparks viral outrage, two Canadian detainees mark one year in a Chinese prison, and Chinese diplomats link market access with a Huawei contract in the Faroe Islands.
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Book Burning Sparks Online Outrage
Evidence that government officials burned books at a library in Zhenyuan, a county in northwestern Gansu province, has intellectuals up in arms this week. A screenshot of an article posted to the state-run library’s website showing two women burning a pile of “illegal books, religious publications, and especially books and articles with biases” went viral on WeChat, sparking thousands of negative comments—many of which were subsequently censored.
The book burning was part of a campaign launched in October by the Ministry of Education that called on school libraries across China to remove books that supposedly smeared the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders or that harmed “society’s order.” Zhenyuan borders the region of Ningxia, home to 20 percent of China’s Hui Muslims. It seems likely, though not certain, that Muslim texts were destroyed.
Historical resonance. For educated Chinese, it’s likely that the book burning called to mind the Maoist fervor of the recent past. Book burnings, especially of foreign texts, were common during the early years of the Cultural Revolution. Most online commenters didn’t refer directly to the Cultural Revolution—a topic that has been increasingly censored under President Xi Jinping—but instead drew comparisons with the 213 B.C. burning of books and burying of scholars, an atrocity supposedly committed by the first emperor of a unified China.
What is the official reaction? The article about the book burning was removed from the library’s website, and the county government promised an investigation and punishment for the officials. But it’s clear the problem isn’t that they destroyed the books, but that they did it in public. A government statement blamed the employees, saying they did not “collectively destroy the books according to regulations, but rather burned the 65 illegal books in the small plaza in front of the library.”
What We’re Following
Detained Canadians mark one year in China. Tuesday marked one year since two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, were detained by the Chinese government. Authorities have submitted the case to prosecutors, a sign that they could go to trial for violating a state secrets law—meaning they should have access to a lawyer. (Currently, the Canadian Embassy is able to speak to them just once a month.) The Canadians were detained in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada last year. Meng remains under house arrest in a $7 million mansion in Vancouver, while Kovrig and Spavor are held in crowded prison cells after months of solitary confinement.
Swedish diplomat charged for illegal meeting. Sweden has charged its former ambassador to China Anna Lindstedt with “arbitrary conduct in negotiation with a foreign power” for allegedly arranging meetings between the daughter of the detained Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai and Chinese officials. The charge comes from a rarely used part of the Swedish Penal Code aimed at citizens who arrange diplomatic negotiations without state permission. Lindstedt hoped to create a back channel for Gui’s freedom, but instead his daughter was threatened and ties between China and Sweden were strained. China this week canceled a trade visit to Sweden over a free speech prize awarded to Gui, who remains in prison.
A lull in violence in Hong Kong? Organizers estimate that 800,000 Hong Kongers turned out for a largely peaceful pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on Sunday. Police actions have been relatively restrained since the pro-democracy movement’s landslide victory in Hong Kong’s municipal elections. But the panel of foreign experts brought in to oversee the probe into excessive use of force by the police resigned en masse on Wednesday, complaining that the existing review body lacked the power to conduct an effective investigation. The resignations will fuel protesters’ demands for a new, independent body.
What the world thinks of China. An annual poll by the Pew Research Center shows that international opinions of China remain divided, though its image has slightly worsened in the last year. Canada and the United States saw particularly large downturns in favorable opinion of China. But the most strongly negative opinions are still held by some of China’s neighbors, such as Japan (85 percent) and South Korea (63 percent).
Tech and Business
Huawei diplomacy in the Faroe Islands. An audio recording revealed this week that the Chinese ambassador to Denmark threatened to drop a free trade contract with the Faroe Islands, a Danish territory, if the telecommunications firm Huawei is not awarded a critical new contract there. It is the first time that China has explicitly linked market access with Huawei contracts and casts doubt on the huge company’s claim to be an independent, private actor. The Faroe Islands, long a Huawei customer, have some of the fastest internet in Europe, and the government there sought to keep the recording secret.
Chinese Americans face security suspicion. Chinese Americans applying for sensitive defense contracts in the United States have almost a two-thirds chance of losing the deals due to security concerns—a rate far higher than for Russians or Iranians, Bloomberg reports. Suspicions have peaked since 2010, due in part to the high rate of Chinese economic espionage. The difficulty of getting security clearance as a Chinese American also leads to a lack of cultural or language skills among FBI agents: Just 2.5 percent are Asian American, compared with roughly 6 percent of the U.S. population.
State bans foreign software. China has ordered a general ban on foreign software and hardware in all government offices over the next three years, theoretically leading to the removal of Microsoft Windows—which is ubiquitous in China. Previous attempts at similar bans have always failed, thanks in part to the popularity of Windows XP, which has long been the backbone of Chinese offices. The attempt to create a domestic operating system alternative dates back to 2000, when the bug-ridden and now-shuttered Red Flag Linux was launched. While a new wave of xenophobia may push this software ban further, don’t be surprised if it fails due to practical needs.
Photo shutdown. On Tuesday, authorities abruptly ordered China’s two leading photo agencies, Visual China Group and IC Photo (the mainland’s equivalent of Getty Images), to cease online operations for “illegal cooperation” with foreign firms. The move is likely the result of growing paranoia following a wave of foreign criticism over atrocities in Xinjiang, including leaked documents.
What We’re Listening To
The New York Times podcast The Daily released a heartbreaking account of the persecution of one family in Xinjiang this week. The Times reporter Paul Mozur has been following Ferkat Jawdat, a Uighur American who became an activist in attempt to free his own mother from Chinese detention. Despite death threats, she spoke to Mozur when he successfully reached her, creating one of the most gripping audio stories of this year.
A Moment in History
The burning of books and burying of scholars, 213-212 B.C.
To promote his preferred philosophy, fajia (“legalism”), the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang, persecuted other beliefs—particularly Confucianism. That culminated in the burning of books and the burying of scholars, when deviant texts were destroyed and Confucian scholars were buried alive in 213 and 212 B.C., respectively. Chinese dissidents still point to the event as a warning.
At least, that’s the story. Plenty of Confucians, from the orthodox Fang Xiaoru to the dissident Li Zhi, did face martyrdom over the centuries, but the original tale is unlikely to be true. For one thing, the intellectual schools of the time weren’t as coherent. The story comes from the historian Sima Qian’s account a century afterward, while the phrase “burning of books and burying of scholars” (fenshu kengru) dates from six centuries later. While the first emperor definitely prohibited some texts, later historians seem to have exaggerated the persecution for their own ends.
That’s it for this week.