Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s news bulletin Meanwhile in China, a tri-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on the world. Register here.
China has ordered a nationwide review of textbooks after illustrations deemed ugly, sexually suggestive and secretly pro-American sparked public outcry.
The news has alarmed some pundits and parents who fear the campaign could turn into a political witch hunt and represent an unnecessary tightening of the country’s already strict censorship of cultural publications.
The drawings, found in a series of math textbooks used by Chinese primary schools for nearly a decade, are controversial for a variety of reasons.
Some Chinese netizens criticized the photos of children with small droopy, wide eyes and large foreheads as ugly, offensive and racist.
Others have been outraged by what they see as sexual overtones in the drawings. Some photos show little boys with a bulge in their pants that looks like the outline of their genitals; in an illustration of children playing a game, a boy has his hands on a girl’s chest while another pulls a girl’s skirt; in another drawing, a girl’s underwear is on display as she jumps rope.
Netizens also accused the illustrations of being “pro-USA”, as they show several children wearing clothes with stars and stripes patterns and the colors of the American flag.
A drawing showing an inaccurate rendering of the stars on the Chinese flag has been accused of being ‘anti-China’.
Outrage over the illustrations has dominated discussions on Chinese social media since Thursday, when photos of the drawings first circulated online. Several related hashtags have racked up tens of millions of views on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.
Many expressed shock and anger that such “substandard” illustrations not only turned them into textbooks published by the state-owned People’s Education Press, the nation’s largest textbook publisher founded in 1950 but which went unnoticed for so many years. The textbooks have been used nationwide since 2013.
Nationalist influencers were quick to blame it on “Western cultural infiltration”, alleging – without providing evidence – that illustrators were secretly working for “foreign forces”, particularly the United States, to corrupt the soul of innocent Chinese schoolchildren.
Amid the uproar, the popular education press said Thursday it was recalling the textbooks and that it redesigning the artwork – but that failed to assuage public anger.
On Saturday, China’s Ministry of Education intervened, ordering the publisher to “rectify and reform” its publications and ensure the new version would be available for the fall semester. He also ordered a “thorough inspection” of school textbooks nationwide to ensure that teaching materials “adhere to correct political orientations and values, promote outstanding Chinese culture, and conform to the aesthetic tastes of the public.”
But the campaign is not only about aesthetic and moral values – there is also an ideological component. Textbooks have been central to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s efforts to tighten ideological control over the country’s youth and push back against the influence of “Western values”.
Under Xi, the Chinese government has banned foreign teaching materials – including textbooks and classic novels – in all public primary and secondary schools, saying all teaching materials “must reflect the will of the party and the country”.
Criticism of textbooks also turned into personal attacks on illustrators.
Wu Yong, whose art studio designed the illustrations, has been accused of being a spy for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Even Wu’s alma mater, the Academy of Arts and Design at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, has not been spared the wrath of suspicious nationalist users.
Some have accused the academy of being a “hotbed for raising traitors”; others took aim at his logo, saying it resembled a kneeling person holding a fork – a symbol interpreted as bowing down to the West (some history bloggers have since pointed out that the logo was actually an adaptation of the character “art” in an ancient Chinese script called the oracle bone script).
In a sign of the scale of nationalist anger, even famed graphic designer Wuheqilin – who made a name for himself poking fun at Western countries with his ultra-nationalist works – has come under fire. Nationalists accused Wuheqilin of aiding anti-China forces after suggesting that the poor quality of artwork was likely partly the result of low commissions offered to designers – a problem he said the industry had faced for years .
“I fear this has become a politically charged issue that does not allow for an unbiased review of the relevant facts,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
In recent days, a growing volume of educational material has been lambasted online for pandering to Western culture or promoting problematic values. Others have targeted illustrations in sex education books, raising concerns that the publication of such educational materials – which are already rare in China – will also be affected.
Paul Huang, father of a five-year-old in the southern city of Guangzhou, said while he was happy to see poorly designed illustrations removed from schoolbooks, he feared the issue had been politicized.
“As a parent, compared to infiltration by foreign forces, I’m more concerned about overtly strict censorship of content that could have provided children with a freer and more diverse perspective,” he said.
“Such censorship makes our textbooks increasingly conservative and boring, which is not good for children’s development.”
Some publishers have already been affected.
On Saturday, 7.Hi Books, a manga publisher in the eastern city of Hangzhou, apologized to its readers for having to postpone the publication of its comics.
“We have been informed today that due to a social incident caused by a certain publisher, all published children’s picture books have entered a self-inspection phase, and our unpublished comics will have to be postponed accordingly,” he said on Weibo.
In the comments section, many readers said they saw it coming.
” It starts again. They never regulate what should be regulated and only target those who shouldn’t be,” said the top comment with 30,000 upvotes.