Chinese library sparks outrage over report staff burned ‘banned books’

Phoebe Zhang

Staff at a public library in northwest China have set fire to “banned books” in front of the building, sparking anger online and drawing comparisons with the actions of a ruthless emperor during the Qin dynasty.

According to a report on the county government website of Zhenyuan, Gansu province, the library did a “thorough clean-up” of its donated books and destroyed all “illegal publications and religious publications, especially books, pictorial publications and visual content that showed leanings”.

The report from October 22 was spotted by a Chinese social media user and widely circulated online over the weekend but has now been deleted.

It said staff checked all books in storage and on the library shelves and subsequently destroyed 65 of them. The report included a photo of two employees burning books in front of the library.

The ruling Communist Party tightly controls book publishing in mainland China and any content deemed sensitive – particularly political and religious content – is banned.

Social media users expressed outrage over the report, some comparing the library’s move to the mass burning of books ordered by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China.

Qin is believed to have called for the texts to be destroyed in 213BC, and then for 460 Confucian scholars to be buried alive in 212BC, to suppress intellectual discourse as he sought to unify thought and political opinion. The acts are also thought to have contributed to the fall of the Qin dynasty in 207BC.

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One commenter on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, asked: “Who will they bury after they burned the books?”

Others questioned how – if the books were illegal as claimed in the government report – they had ended up on the library shelves in the first place.

Media reports on the incident have been taken down, but a cached version of a Red Star News story from Sunday quoted a library staff member as saying, “There’s nothing to say about this, and no reason to discuss it.”

The report also cited a county publicity department official as saying it was investigating the matter.

A commentary in state-run Beijing Times meanwhile called burning books a “savage” act and not a move that protected society.

“How books and other publications are treated, at any point in time, is a test of society’s attitude to knowledge and civilisation, and it cannot be random and savage,” it said.

The commentary, which called for an investigation, has since been removed.

In October, a week before the books were destroyed, the Ministry of Education called for all primary and secondary schools around the country to check their libraries and dispose of any illegal titles.

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