China to punish library officials for burning books - but only because they did it in public

Chris Baynes
Xi Jinping's government has ordered a cull of books which deviate from Communist Party doctrine: AFP via Getty Images

China has said it will punish library staff who were pictured burning books – because they did so publicly rather than “according to regulations”.

Two workers at a state-run library in Zhenyuan in northwestern Gansu province were photographed destroying the books during a nationwide cull of “illegal” publications that deviate from Communist Party doctrine.

The picture was widely shared on social media last week, sparking anger and concern about the destruction of China’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

In a statement on Monday, Zhenyuan county government said there would be "an in-depth investigation of the specific employees, who will be seriously held accountable".

"The employees did not seal and collectively destroy according to regulations, but rather burned the 65 illegal books in the small plaza in front of the library," it added.

Officials did not say what punishments staff would face or give details about the works destroyed.

In October, the Ministry of Education called on school libraries across China to dispose of books "that damage the unity of the country, sovereignty or its territory; books that upset society's order and damage societal stability; books that violate the Party's guidelines and policies, smear or defame the party, the country's leaders and heroes".

The photo taken outside Zhenyuan’s library was reportedly posted on the county government’s website a week after the Ministry of Education launched the campaign.

According to the South China Morning Post, the picture was published alongside a now-deleted report which said staff had done a “thorough clean-up” of donated books and destroyed “illegal publications and religious publications, especially books, pictorial publications and visual content that showed leanings”.

Chinese social media users likened the act to the incineration of books ordered by an ancient emperor Qin Shi Huang.

“All of a sudden Chinese history has gone back 2,000 years,” said one.

While many comments relating to the topic have been removed from Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform that is subject to official censorship, a few remained on Monday.

Many referenced the idiomatic phrase "burning books and burying Confucian scholars", an edict issued by Qin Shihuang to destroy works he regarded as politically dangerous.

"These so-called illegal publications or religious publications could be a record of the culture of our times," one Weibo user said. "After being destroyed, they may never be found again."

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