A reprint of a book about Chongzhen, the ill-fated last emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), has been banned in China after supposed links to present leader Xi Jinping — making the book another victim of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) censorship.
The book, written by the late historian Chen Wutong — who died earlier this year — was republished last month, chronicling the purges of Emperor Chongzhen, whose attempts to clean up the bureaucracy against entrenched corrupt interests had the opposite effect and led the empire to ruin.
In 1644, as rebellions and foreign invasion doomed the Ming, Chongzhen retreated to a height in the rear of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and committed suicide by hanging.
“A series of foolish measures [and] every step a mistake, the more diligent [he was] the faster the downfall,” the blurb on the book’s cover reads.
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However, perhaps this analysis into the emperor drew the attention of CCP authorities.
Online comments began circulating surrounding comparisons between Chongzhen and Xi Jinping, with the blurb mentioned above garnering particular attention.
“From the Ming Dynasty all the way to the present day,” a post on the “Stupid Stuff from China” Facebook page read.
“Chongzhen, Daoguang, Pu Yi, Winnie [the Pooh], so many like this,” a reader said, calling Xi by the nickname netizens sometimes refer to him by for his resemblance to the children’s book character.
Winnie the Pooh is also banned in China.
Following these comments, the book has disappeared from online bookstores, including Xinhua Books. Online searches for the book have also come up empty, with Chen Wutong’s name also censored on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.
Current affairs commentator Wang Jian believes that the very sentence in the book was the trigger that prompted the ban.
“The book wouldn’t have much of an effect on [Xi], except that it reflects what everyone is thinking,” he said. “Xi Jinping has been going against common sense and the will of the people in recent years – everyone has reached a consensus about that.”
“[The book shows that] if someone tries to abuse their power, misfortune will befall them, so it has become a sensitive topic,” he added. “It would never have been banned if it didn’t speak to that social consensus and public feeling.”
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Book bans across China
China continues to target publications that are alleged to be critical of its rule.
One such case involved the ban of a series of children’s books named “Sheep Village,” which involved sheep standing up to tyrannical wolves in situations mirroring the plight of activists across China. The case saw the arrest of the series’ authors and those who have owned the books through supposedly illegal means.
According to former Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kei, any book in China that contains any supposed political messages would be targeted for censorship or banning.
“The top priority for the [CCP] regime is to maintain its grip on power,” Lam said. He was previously apprehended for months by authorities for selling political books in China.
“As soon as they find a book with ideological implications for the regime or its hold on power, they will list them as banned books,” he added.
“The people in power make the decisions, and also determine the criteria for banning a book, which can’t be rationally understood,” he added.
Another current affairs commentator, Fang Yuan, said people tend to express their opinions “indirectly” by using historical references. They may have sold copies of the Chongzhen book on second-hand book-trading platforms, where regulations are less hectic.
“When there’s no hope of playing hard-ball, the public and civil society expresses its anger by playing a softer game, as a way to curse out the government,” Fang said.
“[This book ban] shows that the situation is very sensitive and has reached a stage where everything is tense and everyone is on guard,” Fang added.
Comparisons of Xi to the final Ming emperor are not only made by dissidents and netizens. In February 2020, Kong Qingdong, a far-left professor at Peking University with close ties to the CCP, made a cryptic post on Weibo alluding to Chongzhen’s crisis and suicide.
At the time, the SARS-CoV2-2 novel coronavirus was spreading throughout China and around the world, inviting widespread domestic and international scrutiny of the CCP regime. Kong’s post, though not directly referring to Xi Jinping, was quickly deleted.
Significantly, Kong is seen as an ally of Bo Xilai, the disgraced former CCP Politburo member who was purged in 2012 and sentenced to life imprisonment in late 2013, after Xi took office. While serving as Party chief in Chongqing and Liaoning, Bo adhered to a far-left ideological agenda and participated in severe human rights abuses.