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The Chinese government is well known for covering up that which it does not want discussed: the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and even elements of its purported campaign against corruption. This is a government also known for censoring in remarkably diverse ways: not just by regularly issuing clunky propaganda directives to the state media, but also via elaborate control of academic curriculum, domestic publishing, and the Internet; prosecuting peaceful critics; and spending considerable sums on promoting state media outlets globally.

Empty art frames seen at the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh following objections from China’s ambassador to Bangladesh, February 2016. © 2016 Wasfia Nazreen, via Facebook

As a result, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that Ma Mingqiang, China’s ambassador to Bangladesh, objected vehemently last week after visiting the Dhaka Art Summit that featured facsimile images of handwritten notes written by some Tibetan self-immolators, among other subjects.. But what is surprising – and alarming – is that the organizers of the Dhaka Art Summit didn’t respond to the ambassador’s diatribe by defending the works. Worried that China might even prevail and force the Bangladeshi government to shut down the summit altogether, the exhibit’s artists, Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, chose another unique form of protest: covering the images. In a statement, the artists said their actions were intended to “draw attention to the unreasonable demands of the Chinese Embassy on an event taking place in another country and at the same time further highlight the nature of censorship and oppression inside Tibet.”

Beijing’s growing desire to control expression inside China is rapidly mutating into a desire to control expression outside China. That impulse has taken an ominous turn in recent weeks: we now know that since mid-October China appears to have taken into custody and forcibly disappeared five booksellers – two of them European citizens outside the mainland, three of them Hong Kong residents visiting the mainland – and are holding them in undisclosed locations on the mainland for publishing books critical of the Chinese leadership.

Bangladesh should speak out against China’s efforts to curtail free expression there. Considering that four bloggers were murdered in Bangladesh in 2015, this is a time for the Sheikh Hasina government to stand up to bullies. 

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