BEIJING – Library officials in northwest China recently hoped to demonstrate their ideological fervor and loyalty to the Communist Party by purging politically incorrect books and religious materials in emphatic fashion: they burned them.
Then they uploaded a report – and a photo – to showcase their work.
The book-burning incident, with all its dark historical precedents from this country and Nazi-era Germany, has heightened alarm at a time when Chinese intellectuals see their society tipping further into authoritarianism.
The incident gained widespread attention on Sunday after Chinese social media users noticed a report on the Library Society of China’s website from a library in Zhenyuan County, which declared it had removed “illegal publications, religious publications and deviant papers and books, picture books and photographs” in an effort to “fully exert the library’s role in broadcasting mainstream ideology.”
The library’s announcement said the event was attended by education and culture bureau officials. It included a picture of employees burning a stack of books outside the entrance of the library, which was adorned with a red banner declaring it would “grasp the themes of education and promote the comprehensive and strict development of the party.”
The incident was likely a response to a new directive from the Ministry of Education calling on school libraries to cull teaching materials, analysts said. Chinese authorities in recent weeks have talked up the importance of tightening their grip over classrooms following Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, which Beijing believes are a product of the city’s independent – and wayward – education system.
The ministry did not respond immediately to a request for comment on Monday.
The nationwide memo from October called for a ban of materials that harmed national unity and sovereignty, contradicted the Communist Party’s direction and path, or propagated religion, among other things.
But for many Chinese, and even some of the country’s tightly controlled news outlets, the sight of local officials trumpeting book-burning was too much.
Chen Youxi, a prominent defense lawyer, warned officials that book burning “goes down in history” and loosely compared it with the Cultural Revolution in a social media post that was censored hours later. The Cultural Revolution, which started in the mid-1960s and lasted a decade, was an attempt to purge Chinese communist society of the remnants of traditional and capitalist elements.
The Beijing News called for an investigation into the library in an opinion column. That was also censored.
On Monday, the Zhenyuan government told local media it would investigate the library incident but offered no further comment. Much of the social media firestorm had been scrubbed clean; some posts that remained suggested the burned materials shouldn’t have been archived by the library in the first place.
Zhang Lifan, a historian in Beijing, said the online outrage reflected anxieties among educated Chinese about the chill settling over their country.
“Frustrations have building the last seven years over growing repression of intellectuals and freedom of speech,” Zhang said, referring indirectly to the administration of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “The popular anger reflected something that’s long-standing.”
The Zhenyuan incident reflected the current climate in which local officials believed they could gain political points for dramatically culling books, Zhang added.
“They saw it as positive thing, a proud thing to report,” he said.
While originating from a county of 513,000 people in one of China’s most impoverished regions, the Zhenyuan episode seemed to strike a nerve in a society that is deeply reverent of the written word – and keenly cognizant of its history of despotism.
On Twitter, which is accessible in China using special software, many remarked that the first Chinese emperor burned books and buried intellectuals alive – a practice immortalized in the idiom “fenshu-kengru” – to cement his grip after uniting the country in 221 B.C.
Others drew comparisons with 1930s Germany, where Nazi student groups burned “un-German” books before the regime targeted ethnic minorities. Still others pointed out an anecdote nearer to home: the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong, joked to colleagues at a 1958 Communist Party conference that he buried 46,000 scholars compared with the Qin emperor’s 460.
By late Sunday, many Chinese flooded social media to post their twist on a 19th century poem about the first Chinese emperor.
“His Great Wall of ten thousand li stands firm today,” they wrote, using a traditional Chinese unit of distance. “We are again seeing the Qin Emperor of those years.”