Little Red Podcast

Policing the Contour Lines5 min read

China’s cartographic obsession – Louisa Lim



When German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to give Chinese President Xi Jinping an antique map, she unleashed a Pandora’s box of cartographic tensions. The 1735 map – printed by a German publishing house but made by French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville – depicted a China without Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia or Manchuria. In addition, the borders of Taiwan and Hainan were shown a different colour from China. At a single glance, this document undermines Beijing’s claims that these regions have been inalienable parts of its sovereign territory since ancient times.

To many Chinese, this gift was at best a shocking breach of etiquette, at worst a slap in the face. So sensitive was this morass of conflicting claims that the People’s Daily decided not to report on the episode at all, presumably judging silence safer. The Xinhua news agency went one step further by taking the liberty of rewriting events with a more satisfactory outcome: it incorrectly reported that the map Merkel gave Xi was an 1844 chart by the British mapmaker John Dower, a map which shows the burgeoning Chinese empire at its fullest extent, including Tibet, Mongolia and parts of Siberia. Such shenanigans underline Beijing’s preoccupation with maps, which now appears to be reaching into classrooms and publications far beyond Beijing’s border.

One new area of contestation appears to be maps in academic journals, as anecdotal examples emerge of cases where non-Chinese academics are pressured to ensure their maps show territorial boundaries which align with Beijing’s worldview. Three examples, cited by John Zinda, an environmental sociologist at Cornell University, illustrate how pressure is brought to bear. In the first case, a Chinese co-author was harassed online after their name appeared on an article bearing a map presenting Taiwan as a different colour from China. In the second case, a Chinese scholar, citing possible professional repercussions, pressured a Western co-author to change a map because it presented disputed territories between China and India as disputed rather than as Chinese territory. In the third case, bitter disagreements between Chinese and Western scholars broke out about how Chinese boundaries should be represented, almost leading to their collaboration breaking down.

Even though academic journals have a very small readership, they carry more weight given their role presenting what Zinda describes as “an authoritative representation of reality.” He sees such moves using Chinese scholars to exert pressure on Western colleagues as part of a longer term strategy: “One of the key things here is that, as with any other form of propaganda, if people see enough maps that represent Chinese territory as the Chinese state sees it, that becomes accepted more and more as common sense.”

These revelations follow increased pressures on academic publishers to block access within China to papers deemed sensitive by the authorities. Springer Nature, which publishes Scientific American among others, was the first major publisher to accept such conditions by making more than 1000 articles in its database inaccessible from China. Although publications are not yet being asked to block access to articles with maps deemed questionable, Zinda notes that for the Western scholars involved, any moves to redraw borders still amount to interference in the academic process: “I would say what they are experiencing is a form of censorship, or at least self-censorship, because people are concerned about the consequences.”

Such moves underline the power of a resurgent China to exert its will on the outside world, often underlined by the use of its economic might as a cudgel. In recent months, a parade of major multinational corporations – including Marriott, Zara, Qantas and Delta Airlines – have issued public apologies for listing Hong Kong and Taiwan as ‘countries’ on their websites, after being reprimanded by the Chinese authorities. Public intellectual Clive Hamilton, who has written a book about Chinese influence in Australia classed this as “economic blackmail.”

“I think we’ve seen a process underway for a long time now of not just companies, but countries bowing to China’s enormous wealth and power,” says The Economist’s China Editor James Miles. This growing sense of confidence underpinning China’s moves on the international stage comes as Xi Jinping moves to cement his power at home by removing term limits, thus clearing the way for indefinite rule. In the biggest Chinese government revamp in years, one bureau that will be scrapped is the National Mapping and Surveying Bureau, which will be brought under a new Ministry of Natural Resources, along with the Ministry of Land and Resources and the State Oceanic Administration. Whether this restructuring is to serve geopolitical ends or to facilitate resource extraction is as yet unclear.

But how serious are Beijing’s designs on Taiwan? Recently China has increased its ‘encirclement drills’ around the island, and a leading military analyst has warned it has accelerated its timetable for taking over the island to 2020. According to Miles, Taiwan remains a major preoccupation: “I think there’s been more of a sense under Xi Jinping that there is a national mission that has to be fulfilled, as he calls it ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.’ What’s implicit in that is resolving that one great problem that was left over from the Chinese civil war, namely the status of Taiwan.” Nonetheless, Miles does not believe a military ‘solution’ is imminent.

In the meantime, Beijing has been exercising its cartographic ambitions by producing its own maps. In 2014, it published a vertical map of the South China Sea with a ten-dash line laying out China’s expansive claims – one dash more than the famous nine-dash-line drawn up by the Kuomintang. That same year a new map distributed to the People’s Liberation Army showed contested areas, including the Indian area of Arunachal Pradesh, under Chinese ownership. India’s Ministry of External Affairs reacted angrily, fulminating that “cartographic depiction doesn’t change facts.” But for Beijing, maps may just be the first stage. ∎

This essay is a companion piece to this week’s episode of the Little Red Podcast, hosted by Graeme Smith amd Louisa Lim and distributed by Chinoiresie at Australian National University.
Header image: 1900 map of China and South-East Asia, from Norman B. Leventhal Map Centre on Flickr.