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 attracted widespread attention Sunday after Chinese social media users noticed a report on the Library Society of China’s website from a library in Zhenyuan county. The library 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 Education Ministry 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 after 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 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 to 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 that the burned materials should not 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 been 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 incident in Zhenyuan stemmed from the current climate in which local officials believe they can gain political points for dramatically culling books, he added. “They saw it as positive thing, a proud thing to report,” Zhang said.
Qiao Mu, a former professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University who was demoted to working as a librarian in 2014 for his political speech, said academics have been increasingly suspended or fired for political speech in recent years.
This year, several professors were criticized and publicly shamed by their students for taking views seen as sympathetic to Hong Kong’s protesters or criticizing the Chinese leadership.
“The book-burning was not surprising when you consider the pressure on academics in recent years,” said Qiao, who moved to Virginia in late 2017 because of the climate in China. “I only fear that it will get worse.”
While taking place in a county of 513,000 in one of China’s poorest 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 to 1930s Germany, where Nazi student groups burned “un-German” books before the regime targeted ethnic minorities. Still others noted 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.”