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The map war – How China creates facts with world maps The map war – How China creates facts with world maps Maxar Technologies / Reuters

On globes, in school books and in children’s movies: The Chinese government is fighting an uncompromising, obsessive battle over its conception of «correct» maps. Why?

« Back to article overview

In 2019, Chris Chappell discovered a globe by American manufacturer Mova in a museum shop in Norway. Chappell is the founder and host of the New York-based «China Uncensored,» a YouTube show critical of China. Because Mova is one of the sponsors of his show, he took a closer look at the globe, and made a surprising discovery: A border line consisting of nine dashes was drawn in the South China Sea, marking the vast territory China claims there.

Chappell was of course familiar with this so-called nine-dash line. China has insisted on the imaginary border for years, even though an international court has declared that there is no legal basis for it. Still, he wondered: How did the nine dashes end up on a globe sold in a Norwegian museum, which was made by an American company that also supports a show critical of China?

The answer proved as simple as it was alarming: Since 2008, Mova has had many of its globes manufactured in China. There, the law demands that all maps produced in the country must represent China’s conception of the world. This means that some disputed territories on the border with India and on the island of Taiwan must be allocated to China, and the nine-dash line has to appear. Chinese ships off of Whitsun Reef, 320 kilometers west of the Philippine island of Palawan. What China deems legal is regarded by the Philippines as an illegal intrusion into its own exclusive economic zone. Maxar Technologies / Reuters

On globes, in school books and in children’s movies: The Chinese government is fighting an uncompromising, obsessive battle over its conception of «correct» maps. Why?

« Back to article overview

In 2019, Chris Chappell discovered a globe by American manufacturer Mova in a museum shop in Norway. Chappell is the founder and host of the New York-based «China Uncensored,» a YouTube show critical of China. Because Mova is one of the sponsors of his show, he took a closer look at the globe, and made a surprising discovery: A border line consisting of nine dashes was drawn in the South China Sea, marking the vast territory China claims there.

Chappell was of course familiar with this so-called nine-dash line. China has insisted on the imaginary border for years, even though an international court has declared that there is no legal basis for it. Still, he wondered: How did the nine dashes end up on a globe sold in a Norwegian museum, which was made by an American company that also supports a show critical of China?

The answer proved as simple as it was alarming: Since 2008, Mova has had many of its globes manufactured in China. There, the law demands that all maps produced in the country must represent China’s conception of the world. This means that some disputed territories on the border with India and on the island of Taiwan must be allocated to China, and the nine-dash line has to appear. Chinese ships off of Whitsun Reef, 320 kilometers west of the Philippine island of Palawan. What China deems legal is regarded by the Philippines as an illegal intrusion into its own exclusive economic zone. Maxar Technologies / Keystone

The Chinese authorities even forbid Mova to produce a historical globe, on the grounds that the 1790 map image by Italian mathematician and cartographer Giovanni Maria Cassini violated Chinese regulations. Mova finally decided to leave China and have its products manufactured in Taiwan. The incident first came to light when Chappelle reported it on «China Uncensored.» Mova itself declines to comment on the matter today. «We prefer not to participate in political discussions,» one employee wrote back after four written inquiries and several phone calls had gone unanswered. Like other key figures in this story, their inclination was to say nothing at all. Every country presents its view of the world on its maps

It is hardly unusual for a country to use maps in an attempt to create facts that match its ambitions. Maps are the silent weapons of the conquerors, and the last arguments of the conquered. Maxar Technologies / Keystone

The Chinese authorities even forbid Mova to produce a historical globe, on the grounds that the 1790 map image by Italian mathematician and cartographer Giovanni Maria Cassini violated Chinese regulations. Mova finally decided to leave China and have its products manufactured in Taiwan. The incident first came to light when Chappelle reported it on «China Uncensored.» Mova itself declines to comment on the matter today. «We prefer not to participate in political discussions,» one employee wrote back after four written inquiries and several phone calls had gone unanswered. Like other key figures in this story, their inclination was to say nothing at all. Every country presents its view of the world on its maps

It is hardly unusual for a country to use maps in an attempt to create facts that match its ambitions. Maps are the silent weapons of the conquerors, and the last arguments of the conquered. China’s 9-dash line claim Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone Malaysia Brunei Phillipines

Arab states have been threatening, pleading with and cajoling mapmakers for decades, with the goal of persuading them to rename the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf. In 1997, Turks in Germany called for the atlas produced by the General German Automobile Club (ADAC) to be burned, because one area in its new edition had been labeled «Kurdistan.»

Cartographer Lorenz Hurni of ETH Zurich, a Swiss research university, has also been repeatedly approached to make changes to the Swiss World Atlas produced by his institution. The embassies of Japan and South Korea, for example, each sent Hurni glossy brochures and wanted to invite him to dinner, with the aim of persuading him to label the sea between Japan and the Korean peninsula their way: In Japan, for example, it is called the Sea of Japan, in South Korea the East Sea, in North Korea the Korean East Sea. For the Atlas of Switzerland, Hurni and his team settled on a good Swiss compromise: The body of water is labeled the «Sea of Japan or (Korean) East Sea.»

The dispute over names and borders on maps is usually a curiosity confined to the world of international diplomacy. However, China has promoted its view so vehemently in recent years that foreign companies have found themselves in trouble for maps the country’s government doesn’t approve of – even if they’re just part of a logo or a T-shirt design. On the one hand, this has to do with China’s overt claim to power in the world, and on the other with the fact that the country actually has the means to enforce its opinion. Continue reading belowSign up for our free weekly newsletter and never miss a story

Thank you for subscribing. Please check your spam folder if you don’t receive a welcome email within the next few minutes. All previous newsletter editions can be found here.

China is not only regarded as the world’s workshop, but has also become an indispensable market as its billion-strong population increasingly embraces a consumerist lifestyle. With such a tight grip on both the beginning and the end of the value chain, it is able to dictate boundaries to the world.

The Swedish company Printpool, for example, experienced this in 2010. Printpool offers a service for printed products, and was at the time partnering with a Chinese company in Guangzhou. The firm’s quality manager, Roger Johansson, had travelled to China to supervise the production of Swedish textbooks. One day he was called into an office, where he found a man in uniform looking through the printed pages. In an interview, Johansson said this visitor objected to a page with a map that depicted ocean currents.

The map didn’t show any country borders, but displayed several cities including Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo for the purposes of orientation, all using the same size font. According to Johansson, the man in the uniform told him: «We can’t print it like that. Taipei has to be written smaller than Beijing. That’s the rule here.» Taipei is the capital of Taiwan, which China considers to be part of its own territory, although the island nation has functioned independently since 1949. But because the state of Taiwan does not exist from the Chinese point of view, it is not allowed to exist on maps either.

Johansson subsequently decided to have the book printed in Europe. Six months later, a second incident occurred, in which maps contained in the print files were changed in China without anyone consulting Johansson. «What I remember most is that I failed to make the Chinese employees understand why this was a problem for us,» Johansson said. «It was a cultural clash. They didn’t apologize. Instead they seemed happy to help us avoid doing anything illegal.»

In Sweden, on the other hand, news that the Chinese government had edited Swedish textbooks made waves. Printpool stopped printing in China in 2018, not only because of the map censorship problems, but also because international printing prices had changed. Chinese authorities shred maps deemed «incorrect»

International disputes over territory often revolve around borders of unclear status between two countries or regions. With the nine-dash line, however, China is making a demand of a completely different magnitude. The maritime area claimed by China in the South China Sea is as large as Mexico. The nine-dash border line at times extends more than 2,000 kilometers (about 1,250 miles) from China’s coast. Most importantly, it infringes upon the territorial claims of no less than six countries, including Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam. Filipino fishermen are routinely harassed by Chinese «fishing boats» in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China’s 9-dash line claim Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone Malaysia Brunei Phillipines

Arab states have been threatening, pleading with and cajoling mapmakers for decades, with the goal of persuading them to rename the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf. In 1997, Turks in Germany called for the atlas produced by the General German Automobile Club (ADAC) to be burned, because one area in its new edition had been labeled «Kurdistan.»

Cartographer Lorenz Hurni of ETH Zurich, a Swiss research university, has also been repeatedly approached to make changes to the Swiss World Atlas produced by his institution. The embassies of Japan and South Korea, for example, each sent Hurni glossy brochures and wanted to invite him to dinner, with the aim of persuading him to label the sea between Japan and the Korean peninsula their way: In Japan, for example, it is called the Sea of Japan, in South Korea the East Sea, in North Korea the Korean East Sea. For the Atlas of Switzerland, Hurni and his team settled on a good Swiss compromise: The body of water is labeled the «Sea of Japan or (Korean) East Sea.»

The dispute over names and borders on maps is usually a curiosity confined to the world of international diplomacy. However, China has promoted its view so vehemently in recent years that foreign companies have found themselves in trouble for maps the country’s government doesn’t approve of – even if they’re just part of a logo or a T-shirt design. On the one hand, this has to do with China’s overt claim to power in the world, and on the other with the fact that the country actually has the means to enforce its opinion. Continue reading belowSign up for our free weekly newsletter and never miss a story

Thank you for subscribing. Please check your spam folder if you don’t receive a welcome email within the next few minutes. All previous newsletter editions can be found here.

China is not only regarded as the world’s workshop, but has also become an indispensable market as its billion-strong population increasingly embraces a consumerist lifestyle. With such a tight grip on both the beginning and the end of the value chain, it is able to dictate boundaries to the world.

The Swedish company Printpool, for example, experienced this in 2010. Printpool offers a service for printed products, and was at the time partnering with a Chinese company in Guangzhou. The firm’s quality manager, Roger Johansson, had travelled to China to supervise the production of Swedish textbooks. One day he was called into an office, where he found a man in uniform looking through the printed pages. In an interview, Johansson said this visitor objected to a page with a map that depicted ocean currents.

The map didn’t show any country borders, but displayed several cities including Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo for the purposes of orientation, all using the same size font. According to Johansson, the man in the uniform told him: «We can’t print it like that. Taipei has to be written smaller than Beijing. That’s the rule here.» Taipei is the capital of Taiwan, which China considers to be part of its own territory, although the island nation has functioned independently since 1949. But because the state of Taiwan does not exist from the Chinese point of view, it is not allowed to exist on maps either.

Johansson subsequently decided to have the book printed in Europe. Six months later, a second incident occurred, in which maps contained in the print files were changed in China without anyone consulting Johansson. «What I remember most is that I failed to make the Chinese employees understand why this was a problem for us,» Johansson said. «It was a cultural clash. They didn’t apologize. Instead they seemed happy to help us avoid doing anything illegal.»

In Sweden, on the other hand, news that the Chinese government had edited Swedish textbooks made waves. Printpool stopped printing in China in 2018, not only because of the map censorship problems, but also because international printing prices had changed. Chinese authorities shred maps deemed «incorrect»

International disputes over territory often revolve around borders of unclear status between two countries or regions. With the nine-dash line, however, China is making a demand of a completely different magnitude. The maritime area claimed by China in the South China Sea is as large as Mexico. The nine-dash border line at times extends more than 2,000 kilometers (about 1,250 miles) from China’s coast. Most importantly, it infringes upon the territorial claims of no less than six countries, including Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam. Filipino fishermen are routinely harassed by Chinese «fishing boats» in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Jes Aznar / Getty

Under international maritime law, a country may claim an area extending 12 nautical miles from its coastline as its territorial waters. A strip 200 nautical miles wide is considered to be a so-called exclusive economic zone, in which only the adjoining coastal state is allowed to fish and mine natural resources.

In 2009, in a submission to the United Nations regarding the nine-dash line, China stated that it possessed «sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the waters in question, as well as over the seabed and its subsoil.» The Philippines then turned to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which in 2016 ruled that China’s territorial claims were not compatible with international law.

China had supported its claims primarily using disputed historical sources and a map produced in 1947. On that map, the line still had 11 dashes. However, Mao Zedong abandoned two of them off the coast of what was then North Vietnam in 1952 in an act of socialist brotherly love. Nine remained, but China never disclosed their precise location. Even in the country itself, it seems that people aren’t quite sure where the lines actually belong. At least, their position differs on the 1947 and 2009 maps. China bases its claims in the South China Sea on this 1947 map. Jes Aznar / Getty

Under international maritime law, a country may claim an area extending 12 nautical miles from its coastline as its territorial waters. A strip 200 nautical miles wide is considered to be a so-called exclusive economic zone, in which only the adjoining coastal state is allowed to fish and mine natural resources.

In 2009, in a submission to the United Nations regarding the nine-dash line, China stated that it possessed «sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the waters in question, as well as over the seabed and its subsoil.» The Philippines then turned to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which in 2016 ruled that China’s territorial claims were not compatible with international law.

China had supported its claims primarily using disputed historical sources and a map produced in 1947. On that map, the line still had 11 dashes. However, Mao Zedong abandoned two of them off the coast of what was then North Vietnam in 1952 in an act of socialist brotherly love. Nine remained, but China never disclosed their precise location. Even in the country itself, it seems that people aren’t quite sure where the lines actually belong. At least, their position differs on the 1947 and 2009 maps. China bases its claims in the South China Sea on this 1947 map. PD

In lengthy technical papers, Western experts have puzzled over what China actually means by the border. Is the region supposed to be territory, an economic zone or something else entirely? None of this matters, however, because China declared the court had no jurisdiction, and never recognized the verdict.

Instead, on Jan. 1, 2016, the government put into effect rules requiring, among other things, that maps produced or used in the country represent China’s views regarding territorial possessions in the South China Sea. Since that time, authorities have been hunting down maps that «harm China’s territorial integrity in the long run,» as Liu Wenzong, a professor at the Department of International Law at China Foreign Affairs University, put it in the Global Times, a newspaper owned by the Communist Party-aligned People’s Daily. An incident in the spring of 2019, in which customs authorities in the coastal city of Qingdao shredded 28,908 «incorrect» maps, was even deemed worthy of an article in the regime-loyal newspaper.

Anyone unwilling to accept these interventions, such as Sweden’s Printpool, have had no choice other than to abandon production in China. Judging by the problems other companies have had with their maps, this is a comparatively straightforward solution. However, any firm that wants to sell its goods or services in China now faces completely different difficulties. Border disputes even in children’s movies

In 2019, fashion chain The Gap got in trouble over a T-shirt depicting a map of China. This spring, it was Swedish clothing store H&M’s turn. On April 2, 2021, authorities in Shanghai reportedly summoned representatives of H&M’s local office because the company’s website contained an «incomplete» map of China. The action is likely to have been a reaction to H&M’s announcement that it would no longer source cotton from the Xinjiang region, because the fabric is suspected of coming from labor camps housing persecuted Muslim Uighurs. H&M announced it would no longer process cotton from Xinjiang, because it is suspected of being harvested under conditions of forced labor. Shortly afterward, Chinese authorities protested to an H&M office in Shanghai over an «incomplete» map – and H&M gave in. PD

In lengthy technical papers, Western experts have puzzled over what China actually means by the border. Is the region supposed to be territory, an economic zone or something else entirely? None of this matters, however, because China declared the court had no jurisdiction, and never recognized the verdict.

Instead, on Jan. 1, 2016, the government put into effect rules requiring, among other things, that maps produced or used in the country represent China’s views regarding territorial possessions in the South China Sea. Since that time, authorities have been hunting down maps that «harm China’s territorial integrity in the long run,» as Liu Wenzong, a professor at the Department of International Law at China Foreign Affairs University, put it in the Global Times, a newspaper owned by the Communist Party-aligned People’s Daily. An incident in the spring of 2019, in which customs authorities in the coastal city of Qingdao shredded 28,908 «incorrect» maps, was even deemed worthy of an article in the regime-loyal newspaper.

Anyone unwilling to accept these interventions, such as Sweden’s Printpool, have had no choice other than to abandon production in China. Judging by the problems other companies have had with their maps, this is a comparatively straightforward solution. However, any firm that wants to sell its goods or services in China now faces completely different difficulties. Border disputes even in children’s movies

In 2019, fashion chain The Gap got in trouble over a T-shirt depicting a map of China. This spring, it was Swedish clothing store H&M’s turn. On April 2, 2021, authorities in Shanghai reportedly summoned representatives of H&M’s local office because the company’s website contained an «incomplete» map of China. The action is likely to have been a reaction to H&M’s announcement that it would no longer source cotton from the Xinjiang region, because the fabric is suspected of coming from labor camps housing persecuted Muslim Uighurs. H&M announced it would no longer process cotton from Xinjiang, because it is suspected of being harvested under conditions of forced labor. Shortly afterward, Chinese authorities protested to an H&M office in Shanghai over an «incomplete» map – and H&M gave in. Joerg Boethling / Imago

It isn’t altogether clear which map was involved, and H&M has declined to provide any information about the case. It was most likely the store locator service, which pinpoints all the stores in China. H&M reportedly added the nine-dash line, which Vietnam in turn considered a violation of its national sovereignty. On social media, Vietnamese people began calling for a boycott of H&M stores in that country. Cornered in this way, H&M evidently saw no other way out than to abandon depiction of the region’s geographical details altogether. In any case, the store locator service for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan no longer shows any maps when accessed from Switzerland today. There are maps for all other countries.

Other luxury brands like Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent are evidently less squeamish, and quickly added the nine-dash line. At Gucci, the link to the map is right next to that for the company’s ethics code, which promises «zero tolerance» for «influence-peddling.»

The struggle of the littoral states against the Chinese maps is one of desperate comedy. In May 2018, for example, 14 tourists from China had to take off their T-shirts when entering Vietnam, because the shirts showed the outline of China with the banned nine-dash line. And in October 2019, Vietnamese customs authorities wanted to scrap a Volkswagen Touareg automobile because its navigation system had been programmed to use the nine-dash line. The car had been brought from China to Vietnam for the Vietnam Motor Show in Hanoi. In the end, the authorities settled for exacting a fine.

Even a children’s movie has become a battleground in the map wars. After Vietnamese viewers discovered the nine-dash line in the animated film «Abominable,» the authorities in that country withdrew the film from circulation. In Malaysia and the Philippines, the scene with the map was cut out – a violation that no one wants to see happen to a movie. The animated film «Abominable» is a Chinese-American coproduction. A map depicted in it features the controversial nine-dash line. Joerg Boethling / Imago

It isn’t altogether clear which map was involved, and H&M has declined to provide any information about the case. It was most likely the store locator service, which pinpoints all the stores in China. H&M reportedly added the nine-dash line, which Vietnam in turn considered a violation of its national sovereignty. On social media, Vietnamese people began calling for a boycott of H&M stores in that country. Cornered in this way, H&M evidently saw no other way out than to abandon depiction of the region’s geographical details altogether. In any case, the store locator service for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan no longer shows any maps when accessed from Switzerland today. There are maps for all other countries.

Other luxury brands like Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent are evidently less squeamish, and quickly added the nine-dash line. At Gucci, the link to the map is right next to that for the company’s ethics code, which promises «zero tolerance» for «influence-peddling.»

The struggle of the littoral states against the Chinese maps is one of desperate comedy. In May 2018, for example, 14 tourists from China had to take off their T-shirts when entering Vietnam, because the shirts showed the outline of China with the banned nine-dash line. And in October 2019, Vietnamese customs authorities wanted to scrap a Volkswagen Touareg automobile because its navigation system had been programmed to use the nine-dash line. The car had been brought from China to Vietnam for the Vietnam Motor Show in Hanoi. In the end, the authorities settled for exacting a fine.

Even a children’s movie has become a battleground in the map wars. After Vietnamese viewers discovered the nine-dash line in the animated film «Abominable,» the authorities in that country withdrew the film from circulation. In Malaysia and the Philippines, the scene with the map was cut out – a violation that no one wants to see happen to a movie. The animated film «Abominable» is a Chinese-American coproduction. A map depicted in it features the controversial nine-dash line. FIlmstill Dreamworks

In the Philippines, on the other hand, authorities are trying to beat China at its own game. On June 9, 2021, Senate President Vicente Sotto III introduced a bill calling for the establishment of an authoritative map of Philippine’s maritime areas. «Let’s create our own map, similar to China’s nine-dash line,» Sotto said. «Let’s insist on our own maritime zones. It’s about putting our foot down.»

But as the Philippines has had to learn many times in the country’s dealings with China, a foot put down without force behind it is only a foot, and a map with borders that cannot be enforced is only a piece of paper.

While Vietnam refuses to stamp the new Chinese passports with the nine-dash line, and the Philippines is banning Chinese globes from stores in Manila, China has long been a step ahead in burning its borders into the global subconscious. Even cancer studies must include the borders

Nguyen Thuy Anh of the East Sea Institute at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam has found the nine-dash line emerging in surprising new locations: in scientific papers by Chinese researchers. While the dashed line appeared in almost none of the studies he examined from 2009, the number of papers containing the depiction of the line increased steadily from that point on. In 2019, Anh found the depiction in 90 maps whose common characteristic was that the nine-dash line had nothing to do with the subject of the underlying work, and did nothing to contribute to its understanding.

Why might publications like «The Association Between Smoking and Colorectal Malignant Carcinoma Deaths» or «The Divergence of Stable Isotopes in Tap Water Across China» contain the disputed ocean border? «When asked, a Chinese author admitted that the nine-dash line had been inserted on the orders of the Chinese government,» Anh wrote.

According to the pro-regime Global Times, in the summer of 2016, the London-based Scientific Reports asked a Chinese author to remove the nine-dash line from a map. The Chinese expert quoted by the newspaper declared this to be a «violation of academic freedom.» The fact that China has a rather selective idea of academic freedom was demonstrated a year later, when Chinese authorities demanded that the Cambridge University Press block 300 articles in its databases from being accessed in China. The texts addressed topics such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Tibet and the Cultural Revolution.

China is waging the war over its maps without compromise, and with an obsessive attention to detail. Domestically, the task is handled by the National Working Group to Combat Pornography and Illegal Publications. Abroad, it is often Chinese students who protest when an «incorrect» map is shown in a lecture, or when, as in 2019, a giant globe outside the London School of Economics depicts Taiwan as an independent country.

There are several reasons behind the great effort China is putting into this issue. There’s a nationalistic component to it, said Gregory Poling of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington, which looks at shipping security in the Indo-Pacific region. «It’s about showing the domestic audience that China’s leaders are standing up for the country’s supposed rights,» Poling said. Internationally, the world community is meant to become accustomed to the Chinese claims, he added. Legally, the maps have no meaning. But, Poling said, they advance the view «that all of this is already a fait accompli, and that it’s therefore pointless to challenge it.» The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in November 2016 that China lacked any legal basis for its sweeping claims in the South China Sea. FIlmstill Dreamworks

In the Philippines, on the other hand, authorities are trying to beat China at its own game. On June 9, 2021, Senate President Vicente Sotto III introduced a bill calling for the establishment of an authoritative map of Philippine’s maritime areas. «Let’s create our own map, similar to China’s nine-dash line,» Sotto said. «Let’s insist on our own maritime zones. It’s about putting our foot down.»

But as the Philippines has had to learn many times in the country’s dealings with China, a foot put down without force behind it is only a foot, and a map with borders that cannot be enforced is only a piece of paper.

While Vietnam refuses to stamp the new Chinese passports with the nine-dash line, and the Philippines is banning Chinese globes from stores in Manila, China has long been a step ahead in burning its borders into the global subconscious. Even cancer studies must include the borders

Nguyen Thuy Anh of the East Sea Institute at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam has found the nine-dash line emerging in surprising new locations: in scientific papers by Chinese researchers. While the dashed line appeared in almost none of the studies he examined from 2009, the number of papers containing the depiction of the line increased steadily from that point on. In 2019, Anh found the depiction in 90 maps whose common characteristic was that the nine-dash line had nothing to do with the subject of the underlying work, and did nothing to contribute to its understanding.

Why might publications like «The Association Between Smoking and Colorectal Malignant Carcinoma Deaths» or «The Divergence of Stable Isotopes in Tap Water Across China» contain the disputed ocean border? «When asked, a Chinese author admitted that the nine-dash line had been inserted on the orders of the Chinese government,» Anh wrote.

According to the pro-regime Global Times, in the summer of 2016, the London-based Scientific Reports asked a Chinese author to remove the nine-dash line from a map. The Chinese expert quoted by the newspaper declared this to be a «violation of academic freedom.» The fact that China has a rather selective idea of academic freedom was demonstrated a year later, when Chinese authorities demanded that the Cambridge University Press block 300 articles in its databases from being accessed in China. The texts addressed topics such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Tibet and the Cultural Revolution.

China is waging the war over its maps without compromise, and with an obsessive attention to detail. Domestically, the task is handled by the National Working Group to Combat Pornography and Illegal Publications. Abroad, it is often Chinese students who protest when an «incorrect» map is shown in a lecture, or when, as in 2019, a giant globe outside the London School of Economics depicts Taiwan as an independent country.

There are several reasons behind the great effort China is putting into this issue. There’s a nationalistic component to it, said Gregory Poling of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington, which looks at shipping security in the Indo-Pacific region. «It’s about showing the domestic audience that China’s leaders are standing up for the country’s supposed rights,» Poling said. Internationally, the world community is meant to become accustomed to the Chinese claims, he added. Legally, the maps have no meaning. But, Poling said, they advance the view «that all of this is already a fait accompli, and that it’s therefore pointless to challenge it.» The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in November 2016 that China lacked any legal basis for its sweeping claims in the South China Sea. Fabian Hamacher / Reuters

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung is one of the preeminent news sources in the German-speaking world, with a tradition of independent, high-quality journalism reaching back over 240 years. Fabian Hamacher / Reuters

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung is one of the preeminent news sources in the German-speaking world, with a tradition of independent, high-quality journalism reaching back over 240 years. With its curated selection of English-language articles on international news, politics, business, technology and society, NZZ in English gives readers a fresh perspective on global events. With its curated selection of English-language articles on international news, politics, business, technology and society, NZZ in English gives readers a fresh perspective on global events.

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