Curse of the Bureaucrats

Beijing, China - Not content with jailing subversive reporters and restricting access to prodemocracy Web sites, the Chinese government has turned its attentions to a new destabilizing influence: voodoo dolls. Central government authorities are so bothered by the political implications of the dolls that they banned them entirely from Beijing's retail stores in April.

The dolls have become increasingly popular among the Middle Kingdom's misanthropes and trend-conscious teens. Customers purchase a doll (pin included), attach a piece of paper bearing the name of their enemy to the doll and then stab away. Voodoo Dolls Online offers a wide range of dolls in assorted colors. "Do you want to make your enemy feel as if someone is always stalking him behind his back?" reads the caption next to a doll clad in black. " 'The Magic Shadow Killer' will thoroughly destroy his spirit." Another popular item is the "Little Angel," which purportedly brings good luck and helps its owner find true love.

Authorities at Beijing's Industrial and Commercial Management Department claim the dolls encourage superstition and "promote feudalism and feudal beliefs." When officials first cracked down on the import of dolls from Thailand two months ago, Chinese entrepreneurs filled the growing demand by making the toys themselves, wrapping colorful yarn around wire skeletons and adorning each with a crude felt heart. The toys were a marvel of marketing: told that one doll could not be used to harm multiple enemies, the youths who bought them kept coming back for new ones as their hit lists grew in length. Moreover, some stores offered protective dolls that could ward off attacks from other would-be witch doctors.

But now even these homegrown innovators are under attack. In April, after receiving complaints from concerned parents, the Beijing Industrial and Commercial Management Department confiscated all dolls still on sale in the city and issued strict warnings to toy vendors. "We have been told we will be fined and even imprisoned if we continue to sell voodoo dolls," says Huang Xiaoli, a saleswoman in a toy store in the Xidan Mingzhu Market. "The police are serious," she adds. "This is not like pirated DVDs, where the authorities say 'Do not sell these,' and then look the other way while people sell them. Policemen have visited me twice since the ban took effect in April. They really believe voodoo dolls can hurt children." Five separate toy merchants from various parts of Beijing confirmed the ban. A Ministry of Commerce official would not elaborate on its policy toward the dolls—a common practice when authorities are asked about politically sensitive decisions—but by way of explanation he directed a reporter to a law prohibiting the sale of items that foster what the government sees as feudal thought.

Voodoo dolls can still be purchased in cities outside of Beijing, such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou, where central-government policy can be slower to take hold, but already citizens across the country are calling for the Communist Party to enforce a nationwide ban. The Guangdong Provincial Communist Youth League Committee issued a public statement on May 4, the anniversary of China's liberation from imperial rule, calling for a boycott of voodoo dolls and labeling those who buy them "a disgrace to socialism for believing in feudal superstitions."

However, as is the case with all outlawed vices, the sale of voodoo dolls continues to flourish on the Internet. Web sites hawking the dolls have proliferated, customers can bid on dolls on auction Web sites such as eBay and China's Alibaba, and the phenomenon continues unabated in Korea and Japan, where their sale has never been restricted. Some critics feel that the government, by expending so much energy on the dolls, is only lending credence to the traditional Chinese belief in the power of curses and black magic. "Until a month ago, I was selling 10, maybe 11 voodoo dolls a day," says Chen, the owner of a toy store in southwestern Beijing who declined to give his full name when speaking ill of the government for fear of reprisal. "I think most of the kids bought them because they were popular, not because they wanted to hurt each other. The government looks foolish when it acts scared of some silly toys. These things only have power if you believe in them."

Since the initial crackdown, there have been no voodoo-doll-related arrests, although vendors who continue to sell the dolls run the risk of incurring a hefty fine per voodoo doll in their possession. Whether a nationwide ban will be instituted remains to be seen. Regardless, the Chinese government is once more confronting the problems that arise when a market economy and socialist ideology collide.