A “map smuggling ring” sounds like something from a bygone era: perhaps from the time the Jesuits or the British weren’t allowed beyond Chinese ports lest they infect the population with Catholicism or steal the secrets of tea cultivation.
But it is, in fact, a modern phrase used by Chinese customs to describe the new crime of printing and exporting maps that do not correspond with China’s official territorial claims.
This month four government departments including customs, the press regulator and the National Work Group for Combating Pornography and Illegal Publications jointly published a notice to make their stance clear. Any world map printed for an overseas client in China must show the South China Sea and other disputed territories as being part of China.
The regulation doesn’t just apply to maps or books. Any goods bearing any kind of cartographical image must first get it approved by provincial authorities.
“Problem maps” can “disturb and confuse the international community’s understanding of China’s national territory” and have a negative impact on the country’s sovereignty and national security, the notice said.
Previously the rules had been somewhat ambiguous. Maps in domestic circulation had to depict the borders of China as Beijing sees them – including disputed territory such as the South China Sea and
Indian-administered Arunachal Pradesh (known as South Tibet in China). But images for export were more of a grey area – because China produces a huge amount of printed goods for overseas clients, officials turned a blind eye.
However, the situation has been evolving as Chinese territorial talk has become more strident (particularly over Taiwan). Expats leaving Beijing have even had their maps confiscated if they don’t show the “nine-dash line” – a marking on mainland maps to show ownership of the South China Sea – or if the Diaoyu Islands are labelled by their alternative Japanese name, the Senkaku.
Multinationals were also told they had to label Chinese territory “correctly” or face repercussions. Last May the Japanese home furnishings company MUJI was fined Rmb200,000 ($29,738) for listing Taiwan as a “country of origin” on some of its goods, and in April the Civil Aviation Administration of China told 44 international airlines to list Taipei, Macau and Hong Kong as Chinese cities (often they were categorised as “countries” in website dropdowns). The pressure is now on companies such as Apple and Amazon to follow suit and change the way they list Taiwan on their websites (Beijing regards it as a province of China).
Three years ago when the government began cracking down on domestically circulated maps, local publishers became nervous of printing anything that even hinted at cartography. One publisher of children’s books remembers being told she could not print a cartoon image of the Earth, as seen from outer space, because the blue and green sphere (which bore no actual geographic markings) would require the approval of the local printing and press department. In the end she replaced it with a plain sphere marked only with an equator.
As for the new regulations, this month customs officials in Zhengzhou destroyed five tonnes of world maps printed in Shenzhen and bound for Germany. They also said they had smashed a “map smuggling ring” – companies printing “problem maps” and exporting them as ‘tourism posters’. One of the four men charged with the exports was sentenced to 10 months in jail, the People’s Daily reported.
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