Censorship, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once observed, “reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.”
This week, the Chinese government’s lack of confidence was on display as reports emerged that a state-run bookstore in Shanghai had opened the plastic wrapping around a batch of Merriam-Webster's English dictionaries and had torn out the page containing a definition of Taiwan.
Taiwan split from mainland China after Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party in 1949 and fled to the island. The state the Nationalists established in Taiwan eventually evolved into a democracy, but Beijing still views it as a renegade province and insists it will one day be taken back, by force if necessary.
But whether it will get closer to that goal by tearing pages from dictionaries remains to be seen. A Twitter user, @taylorwang789, posted his experience on buying the dictionary.
“I bought a dictionary two days ago in Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore. I’ve noticed that the plastic wrapping on all the copies had been removed and the shop assistant told me, ‘There are some problem, and we removed the wrapping to deal with them.’ I bought the books and carefully examined it, only to find that two pages have been torn out. I wonder what could be the words that irritate the authorities.”
— Taylor Wang (@taylorwang789) October 7, 2016
Twitter user @Ding_yu replied: “A couple years ago, our class all bought copies of the Merriam-Webster dictionary and the Taiwan pages were all torn out because in the definition it said Taiwan’s a country.”
User @redmeteor said she had bought the same dictionary many years ago: No pages had been torn out, but there was a sticker over the Taiwan entry.
— 小频你好 (@redmeteor) October 7, 2016
In 2009, complaints emerged online because dictionary entries for Taipei, Taiwan, Taiwanese, Formosa, China and Republic of, had all been blacked out by marker pens.
For the record, Merriam-Webster's online dictionary — freely accessible on the Internet in China — gives the following definition of Taiwan: “island China off SE coast E of Fujian; belonged to Japan 1895–1945; since 1949 seat of (Nationalist) Republic of China (∗ Taibei) area 13,807 square miles (35,760 square kilometers), pop 22,300,929”
An employee with the Beijing Foreign Languages Bookstore told The Washington Post that all imported copies of the Merriam-Webster dictionary had been “treated” before they went on the shelf.
“There is content violating the One China principle, and we have dealt with it in accordance with relevant regulations,” he said, only giving his surname as Zhu.
“It’s a company decision. If our customers ask, we will give them the same explanation.”
The One China principle, agreed on between the leaders of both sides in 1992, states that China and Taiwan are one country, although each side reserves the right to claim rightful leadership of the Chinese nation.
China’s censors are not alone in the apparently absurd lengths they go to protect their population from anything that might “hurt” nationalist sentiments.
India spends a great deal of energy, for example, in covering up maps in copies of the Economist and Time magazines that show Kashmir as contested between India, Pakistan and China. Its customs officers will even destroy globes entering the country that fail to show the territory as wholly Indian.
Taylor Wang's tweet about the dictionary was part of a conversation about renovations at the Nanjing Library, which took three months but seemed to have changed nothing — except perhaps the content of the collection.
“However, ‘Essays on Important Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court,’ the Harvard and Yale Law Journals, and other such foreign-language books seem to have disappeared from the racks,” a tweet by @freedomandlaw said.
Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party's distrust of Western values and “hostile foreign forces” has grown. And that sentiment appears to resonate with many people: A survey by the Pew Research Center released last week showed 77 percent of respondents thought that their way of life needed to be protected against foreign influence.
Censorship is not the only way that Chinese nationalists protect their interests on sensitive issues such as Taiwan and Tibet.
In January, a 16-year-old Taiwanese singer from a South Korean girl band was forced to make a humiliating video apology to China, after she faced a storm of protest on social media for daring to hold a Taiwanese flag on Korean television.
And on Thursday, British cosmetics brand Lush faced an online backlash in China over its support for the International Tibet Network, a group campaigning to “end human rights violations in Tibet.”
In a typical online reaction, Weibo social media user Zhaozhong commented: “Tibet separatism supporter, please get out of the Chinese market.”