Academic Journal Acquiesces to Censorship Demands

Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest publishing house, made 300 articles from the website of the China Quarterly inaccessible inside China, at the request of Chinese authorities. John Ruwitch and Fanny Potkin report for Reuters:

China Quarterly editor Tim Pringle wrote in a letter sent to the journal’s academic board that China’s General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) had sent CUP, via its importer, a list of more than 300 China Quarterly articles “to be pulled” from its website in China.

[…] “We note too that this restriction of was not an isolated move but an extension of policies that have narrowed the space for public engagement and discussion across Chinese society,” he said in a statement.

Neither CUP nor the China Quarterly letter said when the articles were blocked. The copy of the letter seen by Reuters was undated, but Thomas Heberer, of the University Duisburg-Essen in Germany, who is a board member, said it was sent out on Thursday.

CUP said in a statement it was “troubled by the recent increase in requests of this nature” and planned to raise the issue with “relevant agencies” at the Beijing Book Fair next week. [Source]

From the Cambridge University Press statement:

We can confirm that we received an instruction from a Chinese import agency to block individual articles from The China Quarterly within China. We complied with this initial request to remove individual articles, to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market.

We are aware that other publishers have had entire collections of content blocked in China until they have enabled the import agencies to block access to individual articles. We do not, and will not, proactively censor our content and will only consider blocking individual items (when requested to do so) when the wider availability of content is at risk. [Source]

Editor Tim Pringle expressed concern over the decision to censor the articles. From Ian Johnson at The New York Times:

In a letter made public on social media on Friday, the editor of the journal, Tim Pringle, said that Cambridge University Press had informed him that the authorities had ordered it to censor more than 300 articles related to issues like the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the Cultural Revolution. The publishing house’s site risked being shut down if it did not comply with the request, the letter said.

In response to the government’s actions, the journal issued a statement expressing its “deep concern and disappointment.”

“We note, too, that this restriction of academic freedom is not an isolated move but a further reflection of policies that have narrowed the space for public engagement and discussion across Chinese society,” the statement said.

Professor Pringle said in a telephone interview that Chinese academics, who have been publishing in the journal in increasing numbers, would suffer the most. “It’s not only a retrograde step in principle, but it affects Chinese scholars in particular” he said, because they will not have access to global scholarship on the country. [Source]

China Quarterly provided a full list of the 300 censored articles. CUP also removed 1,000 ebooks from its website, according to reports.

and authors were quick to condemn the action, writing open letters to CUP and issuing a petition calling on the publishing house to reverse the decision.

In recent years, Chinese authorities have increasingly used their growing economic clout to put financial pressure on international media, publishing houses, film producers and others in order to influence their portrayals of China. Authors have struggled over the question of whether it is better to distribute a censored version of their work in China, or not to publish in the country at all. While academic journals have so far largely been spared this debate, some have argued that CUP made the right decision in order to allow their other content to be accessible to scholars in China and to further academic exchange. From Times Higher Education:

Some will say that CUP did not play its cards right, with critics seeing this worrying development as an example of publishers putting commercial interests ahead of academic ones. And, as we all know, submitting to a blackmailer’s demands can only make them stronger.

Hans van de Ven, a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Cambridge, told me that he thinks CUP faced a “difficult situation”. “We must fight any sort of censorship, of course, but I think that it is by and large a defensible response,” he said. “CUP’ response probably takes into account commercial considerations but at least it also strives to maintain some openness and engage China on the issue.”

He added that “[academics in China] are under all kinds of pressure right now, which is one reason why maintaining some kind of connection with them is so absolutely important. The best that we can do is to work with them, stand up for them and involve them in our work.” [Source]

But on Twitter, others disagreed:

Earlier this year, the online academic and news database LexisNexis refused to comply with similar demands to limit access to certain articles inside China and had their full site blocked in China as a result. From Mimi Lau and Jun Mai at the South China Morning Post:

An employee of US-based LexisNexis said its service had been shut down in mainland China since March because it refused to comply with similar requests from the authorities to protect the integrity of its global database. Now, mainland Chinese users must use a virtual private network to access academic journals on LexisNexis.

“We can’t just mess up our database because of an individual nation’s requests,” the staff member, who is based in Hong Kong, said. [Source]

In 2014, Cambridge University came under criticism after it failed to release details of a large charitable contribution to the university made by a foundation run by the daughter of former Premier Wen Jiabao.