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Hong Kong(CNN) China has ordered a nationwide review of school textbooks after illustrations deemed ugly, sexually suggestive and secretly pro-American caused public uproar.
The news has alarmed some experts and parents who fear the campaign is turning into a political witch hunt and represents an unnecessary tightening of the country's already stringent censorship of cultural publications.
The drawings, found in a series of math textbooks that have been used by Chinese primary schools for nearly a decade, are controversial for various reasons.
Some Chinese internet users have criticized the pictures of children with small, drooping, wide-set eyes and big foreheads as ugly, offensive and racist.
Others have been outraged by what they see as sexual connotations in the drawings. Some of the pictures show little boys with a bulge in their pants that looks like the outline of their genitals; in one illustration of children playing a game, one boy has his hands on a girl's chest while another pulls a girl's skirt; in another drawing, a girl's underwear is exposed as she jumps rope.
Internet users have also accused the illustrations of being "pro-United States," because they show several children wearing clothes patterned with stars and stripes and in the colors of the American flag.
One drawing that showed an inaccurate rendering of the stars on the Chinese flag was accused of being "anti-China."
Outrage over the illustrations has dominated Chinese social media discussions since Thursday, when photos of the drawings first circulated online. Several related hashtags have racked up tens of millions of views on Weibo, China's Twitter-like platform.
Many expressed shock and anger that such "substandard" illustrations had not only made it into textbooks published by the state-owned People's Education Press, the country's biggest textbook publisher founded in 1950, but had gone unnoticed for so many years (the textbooks have been in use nationwide since 2013.) Others questioned how these textbooks had passed the country's notoriously strict publication review process.
Nationalist influencers quickly placed the blame on "Western cultural infiltration," alleging -- without giving evidence -- that illustrators had been covertly working for "foreign forces," especially the United States, to corrupt the souls of innocent Chinese school children.
Amid the uproar, the People's Education Press said on Thursday it was recalling the textbooks and would redesign the illustrations -- but that failed to quell the public's anger.
On Saturday, China's Education Ministry stepped in, ordering the publisher to "rectify and reform" its publications and make sure the new version would be available for the fall semester. It also ordered a "thorough inspection" of textbooks nationwide to make sure teaching materials "adhere to correct political directions and values, promote outstanding Chinese culture and conform to the aesthetic tastes of the public."
But the campaign is not only about aesthetic and moral values -- there is an ideological component as well. Textbooks have been front and center in Chinese leader Xi Jinping's efforts to tighten ideological control over the country's youth and fend off the influence of "Western values."
Under Xi, the Chinese government has banned foreign teaching materials -- including textbooks and classic novels -- in all public primary and secondary schools, stating that all teaching materials "must reflect the will of the party and the country."
The criticism of the textbooks has also turned into personal attacks on the illustrators.
Wu Yong, whose art studio designed the illustrations, was accused of being a spy for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Even Wu's alma mater, the Academy of Arts & Design of China's prestigious Tsinghua University, was not spared the wrath of suspicious nationalist users.
Some accused the academy of being a "hotbed for breeding traitors"; others took aim at its logo, saying it resembles a kneeling person holding a fork -- a symbol interpreted as kowtowing to the West (some history bloggers have since pointed out that the logo was actually an adaption of the "art" character in an ancient Chinese writing called the oracle bone script).
In a sign of how far the nationalist wrath has gone, even the high-profile graphic artist Wuheqilin -- who made a name by mocking Western countries with his ultra-nationalist artwork -- has come under fire. Nationalists accused Wuheqilin of helping anti-China forces after he suggested the poor quality of the illustrations was likely in part a result of the low commissions offered to designers -- a problem he said the industry had faced for years.
State media has also chimed in. "Toxic textbooks sound ideological security alarm from infiltration," screamed a headline in the Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid, on Monday.
"The textbooks exposed in recent netizens' campaigns are horrifying. Lessons from the Hong Kong and Xinjiang regions sounded an alarm to us that problematic textbooks are not a matter of aesthetics, but a threat to the country's ideological security and the future of the nation," Qin An, a professor at Tianjin University, was quoted as saying by the Global Times.
"Illustrations in many textbooks have obvious Westernized elements that vilify the Chinese. They are a clear sign of ideological struggle," Qin told the newspaper.
In recent days, a growing volume of teaching materials has been lambasted online for pandering to Western culture or promoting problematic values. Others have targeted illustrations in sexual education books, prompting concerns that the publication of such educational materials -- which are already in short supply in China -- will also be affected.
"I worry that this has become a politically charged issue that doesn't allow for even-handed consideration of the relevant facts," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
Paul Huang, a father of a five-year-old in the southern city of Guangzhou, said while he was glad to see poorly designed illustrations being removed from textbooks, he is concerned that the issue has been politicized.
"As a parent, compared with infiltration by foreign forces, I'm more worried about overtly stringent censorship of content that could have offered children a freer, more diverse perspective," he said.
"Such censorship is making our textbooks more and more conservative and dull, which does no good for children's development."
Some publishing houses have already been affected.
On Saturday, 7.Hi Books, a manga publisher in the eastern city of Hangzhou, apologized to its readers for having to postpone the publication of its comics.
"We were informed today that due to a social incident caused by a certain publisher, all the published children's picture books have entered a stage of self-inspection, and our unpublished comics will have to be postponed accordingly," it said on Weibo.
In the comment section, many readers said they had seen it coming.
"It's starting again. They never regulate what should be regulated, and only target those that shouldn't be targeted," said the top comment with 30,000 upvotes.