China: Book burning by public library officials threatens academic freedom

London, 10 December 2019 – The burning of books deemed contrary to mainstream national ideology by library officials in Zhenyuan county, Gansu province, is an alarming demonstration of the Chinese authorities’ ever-increasing attempts to regulate its citizens access to content, said PEN International today. The incident follows shortly after the announcement of a new directive by the Ministry of Education, which urges school libraries to remove books deemed to be illegal, improper, out-dated or lacking in value.

Manifestations of the Chinese government’s dystopian political agenda are increasingly alarming. From the mass imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities in “re-education camps”, to the disappearance and imprisonment of writers, publishers and others who fail to toe the party line, to the mass surveillance of ordinary citizens. In this climate of fear, they are now calling for destruction of books. This dangerous new turn must be challenged and resisted by all of us who believe in the most basic tenants of freedom of expression,’ said PEN International President Jennifer Clement.

The incident, reported on 8 December, has received widespread attention with critics drawing parallels with Nazi Germany’s book burnings in the 1930s, and the persecution of dissenting intellectuals by former Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, which is believed to have included book burning. According to international news agencies, staff at the Zhenyuan county public library uploaded a report to the Library Society of China’s website announcing the removal of “illegal publications, religious publications and deviant papers and books, picture books and photographs” in efforts to “fully exert the library’s role in broadcasting mainstream ideology”. The Ministry of Education’s directive reportedly gives schools until the end of March 2020 to submit a report including the names of author, publishing house and date, and ISBN numbers of books in their possession, which fall under the banned categories, and the progress of their implementation of their clean-up operation.

PEN International is concerned at the Chinese authorities’ increased efforts to regulate content available to young people and calls for the state to respect its obligations to the protection of freedom of expression.