Issues of a comic book about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have been seized in Malaysia after the government said it “promotes communism and socialism and its content could cause confusion.”
The comic, written by Malaysian author and politician Hew Kuan Yau, seeks to “spread false, misleading facts about communists while trying to generate support and sympathy for the communist struggle,” the Home Ministry said in a statement.
It added that the comic – titled “Belt and Road Initiative for Win-Winism” – could sow dissent among communities in multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysia, saying its content might jeopardize public order and security. One drawing shows a veiled woman standing in front of a detention camp with a caption suggesting that Malays who support China’s Muslim Uyghurs are radicals.
The comic was banned under the Printing Presses and Publication Act, meaning that anyone found guilty of printing, importing, producing, publishing, selling or distributing it faces up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 20,000 Malaysian ringgit ($4,775).
On Monday, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad weighed in, saying: “I believe that China will have a great influence over the whole world in the future but, for the moment, it is not for us to promote Chinese ideas and ideology.”
Mahathir, who has criticized the administration of disgraced former leader Najib Razak for being too close to China, said that “as much as we do not want the influence of the West in our strategies, in our schools, we also do not want other countries to have undue influence over our young people.”
After coming to power in May, Mahathir cancelled several projects linked to China’s Belt and Road initiative, Beijing’s sprawling trade and infrastructure megaproject, citing excessive costs.
The comic was distributed in some of the country’s high schools last week, quickly going viral and sparking a debate about its content.
On October 17, Malaysia’s Education Ministry stressed in a statement that it had not given approval for the comic’s distribution, according to the state-run Bernama news agency. All state education departments and district education offices have been instructed to ensure that schools no longer accept or distribute the comic, it added.
Further controversy was stirred after a picture emerged showing Chinese President Xi Jinping holding the comic – with Mahathir looking on – during the Belt and Road Summit and Forum in Beijing in April.
“The book was not an official gift during the meeting and it (the comic) was brought in without going through proper procedures and channels,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement last week.
Following the ban on Wednesday, the Home Ministry started seizing the remaining issues still in circulation. It confiscated 13 copies from the Asia Comic Cultural Museum in Georgetown, according to Bernama.
Hew is a former member of the Democratic Action Party, which belongs to the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. He was forced to quit the party in 2016 after writing a Facebook post in support of China’s claims in the South China Sea, despite Kuala Lumpur being a claimant in the dispute.
On Thursday, he resigned from his position as CEO of the Malaysia-Chinese Business Council to ensure its “smooth operation,” according to a statement he posted on Facebook.
“I have spent half my life fighting for the betterment of Malaysia,” he said. “Fortunately, the new Malaysia has an independent judiciary and an increasingly clean political culture. However, as for ethnic equality and social freedom, I believe these are far from ideal.”
Previous Malaysian governments often relied on the country’s draconian speech laws to go after critics, including cartoonists who lampooned Najib and his wife over the still unsettled 1MDB financial scandal.