Why China Freaks Out if You Use the Wrong Map

Why China Freaks Out if You Use the Wrong Map
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Why you should care

Because geography is destiny.

A family of bleary-eyed tourists strolls into Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. Fresh from a long-haul flight, Mom drags little Tommy along while Dad takes out his handy map. A customs officer stops them in their tracks and slaps them with a fine that costs more than their Mercedes-Benz. Why? Because the Pacific giant has a hard line on any illegal map that “endangers the country’s sovereignty, safety and interests,” according to a statement from Le Weibin, the government mapping official.

You can be fined up to 200,000 yuan, about $31,400, for the “wrong” map.

That’s if you don’t wind up in jail first. Zhōngguó (中国) — the endonym for China — literally means the Middle Kingdom. Translation: China is the center of the world. And if your map, either physical or online, doesn’t comply with these rules, it’s outta there. If you’re caught distributing a map that names the East Sea instead of the South China Sea, you’re in trouble. If it doesn’t clearly mark Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau in the same color as mainland China, it’s time to look into a lawyer, because your business or website could face criminal charges.

Let’s chart out these new rules for you, shall we? Since the formation of the country, China has been embroiled in costly, bitter territorial disputes. But what irks China today is the weak spots in which its clout and claims are wavering — the uninhabited islands south of China, its autonomous region in Xinjiang, the remote plateaus of Tibet and its “one country, two systems” rule in Hong Kong. So, although China is thought to be an economic juggernaut, it’s far from cohesive. Clearly, “China is getting nervous,” says Martin Lewis, a global geography professor and map geek at Stanford University. It’s getting harder to rule the roost.

Confiscating maps is just a way to send “a message of reassurance … over what China’s positions are,” says Zha Daojiong, an international security expert at Peking University. He has little sympathy for the “sloppy work by map producers,” as these labels can be conveniently used for ammo in politically charged arguments at the highest levels of foreign policy.

Perhaps, for unity, no price is too great, Zha says: “As a matter of fact, I think the ceiling for the fines is too low.”

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