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Chinese publisher removes Burke’s French Revolution book from shelves

Portrait of Edmund Burke. (Scan by NYPL/WikiCommons)
August 20, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A publishing house in China has withdrawn a series of overseas nonfiction books including Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, in the latest incidence of sweeping book censorship by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

The books were taken down from online sales sites after the Jiangxi People’s Publishing House recalled the series, “Translated Classics of Western Conservatism,” earlier this month.

The books were shown as sold out on the sales platform and auction site Taobao, according to an investigation by RFA’s Cantonese Service.

Qian Yuejun, chief editor of the Chinese-language newspaper Europe China Guidance, said the move is highly likely to have been made on the orders of government censors.

He drew parallels with the burning and banning of books in 1933 Nazi Germany, and with book-burning by China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang [259-210 BC].

Qian said Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping is widening a nationwide crackdown on cultural products.

“They must remove any books that could inspire people to think rationally and independently about society,” Qian said. “Xi Jinping wants to return to the political horror of the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976].”

Swedish writer and translator Chen Maiping, known by his pen-name Wan Zhi, said the series isn’t the first by Western intellectuals to be banned under Xi.

“Xi Jinping is particularly fearful that the CCP could fall, much as the Communist Party did in the Soviet Union,” Wan said. “He has said that he wants to learn lessons from the fall of the Soviet Union.”

“He has believed ever since taking power that some publications must be banned in order to protect the party’s grip on power.”

Wan said there was a slightly more liberal approach under former president Hu Jintao and his premier Wen Jiabao, who stepped down to make way for Xi in late 2012.

“Xi Jinping’s thinking is basically stuck in the Mao Zedong era, and it’s all about hanging onto power,” Wan said.

‘Books sold out’

An employee who answered the phone at the Jiangxi People’s Publishing House initially claimed that the books were sold out, but later said the publisher hadn’t ordered the withdrawal of the books itself.

As well as Burke’s Reflections, the series had also included works by U.S. libertarian Albert Jay Nock, British abolitionist James Stephen, French moralist Joseph de Maistre, and conservative philosopher Richard M. Weaver, as well as God and Man at Yale, a 1951 work by William Frank Buckley Jr., and The Conservative Mind (1953) by Russell Kirk.

On Aug. 10, government censors also withdrew A Child’s History of the World and other titles by V.M. Hillier, published by the Guizhou Educational Publishing House, which talked about China as the source of the Black Death that drastically reduced European populations in the Middle Ages.

The publishing house has been ordered to undergo “rectification.”

In March, government censors removed books by 2010 Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa from the shelves after the Peruvian author made comments about the coronavirus having come from China.

In October last year, the ministry of education issued “clean-up and review action” in libraries across the country, after which the Zhenyuan county government library in Qingyang city, Gansu province removed 65 books from its shelves.

The incident caused a public outcry after a staff member was filmed shredding and burning the books at the library gates.