Hong Kong (CNN) – China has ordered a nationwide review of textbooks after illustrations deemed ugly, sexually suggestive and disguised pro-Americanism caused public outrage.
The news has alarmed some experts and parents who fear the campaign could turn into a political manhunt and represent an unnecessary tightening of the country’s already stringent censorship of cultural publications.
The drawings, found in a series of math textbooks that have been used in Chinese primary schools for nearly a decade, are controversial for several reasons.
Some Chinese netizens have criticized the drawings of children with small, drooping eyes, wide eyes and large foreheads as ugly, degrading and racist.
Others were outraged by what they saw as sexual overtones in the drawings. Some photos show young boys bulging in their pants that resemble the outlines of their genitals; In an illustration of children playing, a boy places his hands on a girl’s chest while another pulls on a girl’s skirt; In another drawing, a girl’s underwear is shown as she is jumping a rope.
Netizens have also accused the illustrations of being “pro-American” because they show many children dressed in clothes decorated with the stars, stripes and colors of the American flag.
A drawing showing an inaccurate representation of the stars on the Chinese flag has been accused of being “anti-Chinese”.
Anger over the illustrations has dominated discussions on Chinese social media since Thursday, when images of the cartoons first circulated online. Various related hashtags have garnered tens of millions of views on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like platform.
Many expressed shock and anger that such “low-quality” illustrations not only found their way into textbooks published by the state-run Prensa de Educación Popular, the country’s largest textbook publisher founded in 1950, but went unnoticed for years. many . Textbooks have been in use across the country since 2013.
The influencers Nationalists were quick to blame “Western cultural intrusion,” claiming—without providing evidence—that the painters were secretly working for “foreign forces,” especially the United States, to corrupt the lives of innocent Chinese schoolchildren.
Amid the uproar, the Popular Education Press said Thursday that it would withdraw textbooks and redesign the illustrations, but that failed to quell the public’s anger.
On Saturday, China’s Ministry of Education stepped in, ordering the publisher to “correct and fix” its publications and ensure the new version would be available by fall. It also ordered a “comprehensive examination” of textbooks across the country to ensure that educational materials “adhere to correct political trends and values, promote Chinese culture, and conform to general aesthetic tastes.”
But the campaign is not limited to aesthetic and moral values, but also has an ideological component. Textbooks have been at the center of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s efforts to tighten ideological control over the country’s youth and reject the influence of “Western values”.
Under Xi, the Chinese government banned foreign educational materials — including textbooks and classic novels — in all public primary and secondary schools, saying all educational materials “must reflect the will of the Party and the state.
Attacks on painters
Criticisms of textbooks also turned into personal attacks on illustrators.
Wu Yong, whose art studio designed the illustrations, was accused of being a spy for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Not even Wu University, the Academy of Art and Design at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, was spared the wrath of wary nationalist users.
Some accused the academy of being a “hotbed for traitors”. Others have targeted his emblem, saying that it resembles a person kneeling holding a fork, a symbol interpreted as a bending of the West (some historical bloggers have since pointed out that the emblem was in fact an adaptation of the “art” character of ancient China’s text called the oracle bone script).
As a testament to the extent of the nationalist outrage, prominent graphic artist Wuheqilin – who made his name by mocking Western countries with his ultra-nationalist illustrations – has come under fire. Nationalists accused Wuheqilin of aiding anti-Chinese forces after he suggested that the poor quality of the illustrations was likely the result of low commissions offered to designers, a problem he said the industry had faced for years.
“I am concerned that this issue has become highly politically charged and does not allow for an impartial analysis of the relevant facts,” said Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
In recent days, an increasing volume of educational material has been criticized on the Internet for serving Western culture or promoting problematic values. Others have targeted illustrations in sex education books, raising concerns that the publication of these educational materials – which are already in short supply in China – will also be affected.
Paul Huang, a father of a 5-year-old in the southern city of Guangzhou, said that while he was happy to have poorly designed illustrations removed from textbooks, he feared the issue could become politicized.
“As a parent, compared to infiltration by foreign forces, I am more concerned about explicit strict censorship of content that could have given children a more free and diverse perspective,” he said.
“This 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 delay publishing its comics.
“Today we learned that due to a social accident caused by a certain publisher, all published children’s picture books have entered the self-examination stage, and our unpublished picture books will have to be postponed accordingly,” he said on Weibo.
In the comments section, several readers said they saw it coming.
“It starts again. They never regulate what should be regulated, they only target those who should not,” said the comment that got the most votes with 30,000 thumbs up.