In America, Books Get 'Banned.' In China, Authors Get the Death Sentence.

Chinese police line up prisoners facing the death penalty in 2004 / Getty Images
February 1, 2022

As Americans weigh banning offensive or divisive books in schools, dissident authors in China are getting the death sentence.

The Chinese Communist Party last year sentenced a Uyghur author to death and two others to life in prison. In April 2021, a court sentenced Sattar Sawut, who led the Uyghur Education Department in Xinjiang, to death for writing "separatist" textbooks that "caused people to carry out violent acts in ethnic clashes in 2009," according to the Associated Press. The books depict scenes of violence in the 1940s between China's Nationalist Party and ethnic minority groups.

In the United States last week, school board members in Tennessee made national news for deciding to remove Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from their county's curriculum because the book includes profanity and nudity. Legacy media outlets referred to the decision as a "ban" and invited the book's author to air his opinion about the alleged censorship. Some later emended their original reports, saying the school board had just changed its curriculum.

The alleged Maus banning was only the latest instance of mainstream media accusing local and state authorities of Soviet-style censorship. The New York Times on Monday reported on charges that conservatives have brought against school librarians for stocking certain books and on state legislatures that advance bills to remove books that have sexually explicit or racially divisive content. The Times noted, however, that the effort is not limited to conservatives. A liberal school district in Washington removed the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird from its curriculum, saying the book "celebrated 'white saviorhood' and used racial slurs dozens of times without addressing their derogatory nature."

Curriculum changes don't affect publication and often boost sales. After the McMinn County school board pulled Maus, the graphic novelĀ topped the Amazon bestseller list.

The Chinese state-controlled media outlet CGTN aired video footage of Sawut and of Alimjan Memtimin, one of the authors who received a life sentence, giving what was likely a forced confession and admitted to "incit[ing] ethnic hatred and such thoughts." The Chinese government reviewed the dissident textbooks in 2001 and still decided to publish them then. The authors' sentences now show evidence of Chinese president Xi Jinping's efforts in recent years to consolidate his power by punishing perceived threats to the Communist Party.

The Chinese government often commutes death sentences to life in prison after two years of good behavior, according to the AP.

The 2022 Beijing Olympics begin Friday. The United States in December announced a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games but still chose to send athletes. Republicans in Congress have opposed the decision, saying it will lend legitimacy to a brutal regime and endanger U.S. Olympians.