"The Fetishization of Legitimacy"

In yesterday's LA Times, Julie Makinen wrote a quirky piece about censorship in China. Apparently, a fellow foreign correspondent had a few of her books and materials inspected and ultimately had to "voluntarily abandon" her copy of Julie Lovell's The Opium War for containing a map in which Ταiwan and China were shaded with two different colors.

Now, I've had whole shipments of textbooks disappear into the black hole of Chinese government censorship. For many years, when my job included library acquisitions for a study abroad program, I also had a few titles -- mostly related to Tibet -- which were confiscated at the airport.

What's newsworthy in this case is that the materials in the article were seized while they were being packed for a move out of China.

Say, what?

In the last year, China has significantly stepped up border controls to prevent the import of banned materials, particularly Chinese-language books published in free-speech havens such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. But less well known are efforts by Chinese authorities to confiscate books, maps, globes, DVDs and any printed material they deem objectionable from people departing the mainland.

The extent of the effort remains unclear, but interviews with multiple moving companies in Beijing and more than a dozen foreigners who have left Beijing since 2013 indicate the practice has intensified. The confiscations suggest a growing sensitivity toward any printed or audiovisual material that bears even the slightest whiff of deviation from the party line on territorial issues.

The article quotes one of my favorite historians, Tim Brook, professor of Chinese history at the University of British Columbia, who drops the phrase "the fetishization of legitimacy."

"Regimes that are anxious about their legitimacy fetishize the signs of legitimacy," said Tim Brook, a professor of Chinese history at the University of British Columbia and author of "Mr. Selden's Map of China," a book about an East Asia map from the 1600s. "So one of the signs of legitimacy is a map — there you are one color, your borders are all drawn properly and you look like a proper state."

Whether this particular fetish is an expression of acute anxiety or an involuntary response based on years of conditioning is an open question, but it is clear that Chinese leaders, media, and, increasingly, academia are becoming obsessed with anything that seems to call into question the dominant narratives of the state, party, its history, and territorial integrity.

It's not hard to see this impulse behind the broadside by members of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences against US-based academics associated with the study of "New Qing History" earlier this year. It's the impulse that requires the state media to refer to parts of China as "China's [Fill in Blank with Name of Border Region]". It's the same impulse that results in the kind of odd circumstances reported here.

I also wonder, when deploying this particular metaphor, which definition of fetish is being used here?* There is the definition which suggests a graphic and powerful fixation on a body part or practice for gratification in a way that might be a deviation from normative behavior.

Now, I'm not suggesting that the powers-that-be at China's Customs service hoot, howl, and masturbate like engorged gibbons whenever they confiscate a map showing Ταiwan in a different color than the PRC, but it's clear that within the security and information zeitgeist there is, as Professor Brook so pithily described, a non-standard fixation on legitimizing China's territorial claims.

At the same time, we should consider the original definition of the word fetish, which refers to an object believed to have inherent supernatural or other power that can, in some cases, be wielded against others. Taking this as our definition, the metaphor still works. I honestly believe that there are people in the government who think that if they say "China's [Fill in Blank with Name of Border Region]" on the TV news or confiscate enough books and maps, this will magically cause all of the doubters and haters that China's historical claims are, in fact, legitimate. That if they shout loud enough from the front while destroying any counter-arguments or evidence in the back, the world will magically come around the PRC position on any range of controversial historical or territorial issues.

We'll see. Somehow I doubt it. But it's clear that this "fetishizing the signs of legitimacy" as a phenomenon is not going anywhere soon.


*Related note: Do NOT google "China" + "Fetish" if you're doing your writing in a public coffee shop in Beijing and people can see your screen.