Cambridge University Press U-turns on Journal Cuts

Late last week, news came that Cambridge University Press had agreed to remove 315 articles from the China Quarterly journal from its web pages for users in China, as well as some 1000 ebooks. The story thrust the world’s oldest publisher into a controversy similar to that recently facing one of its biggest tech companies, Apple. CUP’s initial decision prompted fierce criticism including a petition threatening a possible boycott. On Monday, Cambridge University announced that the articles’ removal would be reversed:

Following a clear order from its Chinese importer, Press reluctantly took the decision to block, within China, 315 articles in The China Quarterly. This decision was taken as a temporary measure pending discussion with the academic leadership of the University of Cambridge, and pending a scheduled meeting with the Chinese importer in Beijing.

The academic leadership of the University has now reviewed this action in advance of the meeting in China later this week.

Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based. Therefore, while this temporary decision was taken in order to protect short-term access in China to the vast majority of the Press’s journal articles, the University’s academic leadership and the Press have agreed to reinstate the blocked content, with immediate effect, so as to uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the University’s work is founded. [Source]

China Quarterly’s editor, SOAS professor Tim Pringle, responded in a separate statement:

[…] As Editor, I would like to express my support for CUP’s decision to repost the articles. It comes after a justifiably intense reaction from the global academic community and beyond. Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research. It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access. The China Quarterly will continue to publish articles that make it through our rigorous, double-blind peer review regardless of topic or sensitivity. Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.

Tim Pringle
Editor, The China Quarterly [Source]

Pringle discussed the incident at greater length at The Guardian on Monday:

This morning I met CUP officials and conveyed the message in forthright terms: the 315 articles that the academic publisher had removed from its internet portals in China should be re-posted as soon as possible and made available free of charge. At no point did China Quarterly, which I edit, consent to removal of the articles and we are delighted at CUP’s reversal of the decision.

[…] This attempt to deny access might – just might – be the result of over-reach by Chinese bodies such as the recently created General Administration of Press and Publication. But I fear it is the outcome of a much stronger shade of authoritarian government that excludes voices from outside the party-led system. The evidence of new regulatory, and apparently ideological, constraints on academic freedom and public engagement in China that have emerged since 2012 – under the leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang – suggest that the parlous state of affairs with regard to academic freedom is policy-driven. What is unprecedented is that its reach has now stretched to international institutions such as Cambridge University Press.

The key criteria for publication in our journal will not change – academic rigour and contribution to new knowledge. The topics we publish will not take into account the political sensitivities of any government. And as editor, I will work harder than ever to disseminate our articles as widely as possible. [Source]

In a discussion at ChinaFile, Andrew J. Nathan, whose article “The Tiananmen Papers Revisited” was among those censored, welcomed CUP’s decision as “a good thing, if true.”

[…] But irreversible damage has been done to Cambridge’s reputation. By agreeing to block access to some articles for some readers, the press broke faith with authors, who expect their scholarly work, once it has passed peer review, to be made available to the academic community without censorship; with readers and libraries, who have paid for access to the scholarly work that they need to consult; and with the publication’s editorial board, who donate their time to assure the quality of the work the journal publishes. Who in future can submit an article to any Cambridge journal, or submit a book manuscript to the press, with confidence that the publisher will always preserve the integrity of the work? That’s why I sent a message to the entire editorial board of the China Quarterly this morning, urging them to seek a new publisher who can commit to protecting scholarly discourse from political interference. I gave them the name of one such publisher. I hope the board will follow up this suggestion. [Source]

The University of Nottingham’s Jonathan Sullivan, one of many scholars who spoke out after the initial decision, highlighted some lingering questions and warned that, while the reversal is being hailed as a victory, Chinese pressure is only likely to escalate further:

[…] Despite receiving praise for reversing course, the esteemed press has suffered a blow to its prestige and diminished trust among many academics.

Questions remain about CUP’s prior handling of Chinese demands and the fate of around 1000 e-books removed from its catalogue in China. CUP’s statement notably falls short of pledging to reject any future ‘requests’ to remove content. Indeed it states that it will consider removing work “when asked to do so” if it endangers “the wider availability of content”. Is that not what has just occurred? The line may be a sop to the Chinese authorities, or on advice of the lawyers, but it leaves an opening for similar episodes to arise in the future.

The prospect of future interventions by the Chinese authorities is high. China is in the midst of a concerted program to enforce ‘discipline’ across diverse sectors, including the media and internet, NGOs and lawyers, business and the Communist Party itself. Chinese is under substantial pressure to adopt ‘politically correct’ attitudes in research and teaching. Under these broader conditions, the application of a more systematic means of control of western academic material in China would not be surprising. I suspect that CUP’s volte face, on the heels of a crowing Global Times editorial before the reversal, will lead to an escalation upwards and repercussions for western presses in China. Needless to say, the constrained conditions prevailing in Chinese will continue. [Source]

The Association for Asian Studies, meanwhile, revealed that it had received a similar list of removal demands for its Journal of Asian Studies:

The Association for Asian Studies has received notice from CUP that a similar request has been made by China’s General Administration of Press and Publications concerning approximately 100 articles from the Journal of Asian Studies, an AAS publication. The officers of the association are extremely concerned about this violation of academic freedom, and the AAS is in ongoing discussions with CUP about how it will respond to the Chinese government. At the present time, no JAS articles have been removed from CUP website search results in China.

We oppose censorship in any form and continue to promote a free exchange of academic research among scholars around the world. We will post further updates on this rapidly changing situation as soon as possible. [Source]

With political pressure from China overwhelmingly likely to continue, the arguments against CUP’s initial decision will remain relevant despite its subsequent reversal. On the Modern Chinese Literature and Culture list, Dartmouth’s Pamela Crossley wrote that CUP’s apparent belief “that a little is better than none […] applies to food, water and money. Not to freedom to publish all academic content of merit.” She went on to challenge the “sticky idea that everybody has to be ‘in’ China.” In a letter posted on Twitter, MIT’s Greg Distelhorst and Cornell’s Jessica Chen Weiss accused CUP of complicity in rewriting a “sanitized history” of China. “Scholarship does not exist to give comfort to the powerful,” they continued. “Nor is its purpose to find and exploit the largest market.” Georgetown University’s James A. Millward unleashed some particularly scathing criticism at Medium, describing CUP’s initial stance as “a craven, shameful and destructive concession to the PRC’s growing censorship regime” that “is also needless.”

Cambridge University Press’s current concession is akin to the New York Times or The Economist letting the Chinese Communist Party determine what articles go into their publications — something they have never done. It would be unimaginable for these media to instead collaborate with PRC party censors to excise selected content from their daily or weekly editions. Rather, NYT and The Economist are banned in their entirety — but they remain whole. There are not incomplete, scissored-up, CCP versions of the New York Times or The Economist online in China. In a similar fashion, Google chose to pull out of China rather than let its searches be CCP-screened and selectively blocked. Cambridge University Press, on the other hand, is agreeably donning the hospital gown, untied in the back, baring itself to the Chinese scalpel, and crying “cut away!” But even this metaphor fails, since CUP is actually assisting, like a surgical nurse, in its own evisceration. The result is a misleading, neutered simulacrum of China Quarterly for the China market. And as my colleagues Greg Distelhorst and Jessica Chen Weiss have written, “the censored history of China will literally bear the seal of Cambridge University.” This is not only disrespectful of CUP’s authors; it demonstrates a repugnant disdain for Chinese readers, for whom CUP apparently deems a watered-down product to be good enough.

[…] But the still greater concern is that if China Quarterly and then other journals published by Cambridge (such as the Journal of Asian Studies) — powerful institutions with global clout, not vulnerable individuals — just go along with this request to censor scholarship on these topics, will scholars inside or outside China still be eager to work on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, the Uyghurs, Tian’anmen, Taiwan independence advocates, Liu Xiaobo, the Dalai Lama, Chinese dissidents, Falun Gong and so on? Or will they chose safer subjects? And how should the people who are the subject of these articles feel about Cambridge’s decision to airbrush them from the record? CUP may hide behind the excuse that this is a “pragmatic” decision to preserve “Chinese” access to its less sensitive material, but who the hell gives Cambridge University Press the right to decide that Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kong activists and dissidents of all sorts are less worthy than other content? It is noteworthy that the topics and peoples CUP has so blithely chosen to censor comprise mainly minorities and the politically disadvantaged. Would you censor content about Black Lives Matter, Mexican immigrants or Muslims in your American publication list if Trump asked you to do to? So why do you think it’s fine to cut the oppressed and disenfranchised out of China Quarterly? [Source]

Millward also questioned how great a threat to CUP’s broader business ventures in China refusal to censor would really pose, arguing that “China is not going to ban everything branded ‘Cambridge’ from the Chinese realm, because to do so would turn this into a big, public issue, and that is precisely what the authorities hope to avoid.”

Elizabeth Redden compiled a range of reactions at Inside Higher Ed, including a couple of relatively sympathetic views. She concluded with comments from veteran China scholar Perry Link:

One prominent scholar who has been refused visas to return to China since the mid-’90s, , said via email that, odd as it might seem, “this event can be seen as good news. The CCP’s elite families have been moving for two decades, and accelerating in the last few years, to domesticate China’s people through 1) censorship of information, 2) indoctrination instead of education and 3) intimidation. Abroad, their goal is to extend their power globally, largely through economic power but with military adventures, I’m afraid, only five or 10 years away. Their goal is be No. 1.”

“The West just isn’t getting it about this clear trend,” said Link, a distinguished professor and the Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California, Riverside. “Kim Jong-un is a small problem compared to what Beijing has in store for the world. For the Cambridge University Press to suppose that it can send some people to the Beijing Book Fair and talk anybody out of the long-term trend that the CCP elite has set is naïve in the extreme. It is also emblematic of what many people, including academics, in the West like to cling to.”

“So why is the bald censorship good news?” he continued. “Because it might get at least a few more people to perceive what is really going on. For that, the sooner the better.” [Source]

Public responses from Chinese scholars have been far less prominent, though the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s H. Christoph Steinhardt told Redden that the responses he had seen privately “ranged from bewilderment to outrage.” Academics in China face growing pressure not to speak out on sensitive issues, as the recent silencing of formerly vocal law professor He Weifang illustrates. In his report on CUP’s U-turn, The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer talked to former professor Qiao Mu, who now supports himself as an independent writer:

“The China Quarterly is very reputable within academic circles, and it does not promote the positive energy that China wants to see,” said , a former professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University who was demoted and ultimately left the university after criticizing the government. “Instead, it touches on historical reflection, talks about and other errors that China has made in the past. These are things that China does not like and does not want to be discussed.”

Qiao said the initial decision might have seemed “wise” for the publisher as a company, since China is a huge market. But it would have had a negative effect on already limited academic freedom in China.

“For Chinese academics, the effect is mainly psychological,” he said. “They will think more when doing research and impose stricter .” [Source]

Meanwhile, observers including PhD candidates Justin Ho at the University of Edinburgh and Puck Engman at Freiburg University examined the list of the 315 briefly removed articles for insights into Chinese authorities’ censorship priorities:

Perhaps more surprising than the usual subjects targeted is the haphazard manner in which they appear to have been selected, as Xibai Xu, a politics DPhil candidate at Oxford, noted on Twitter:

The scope of the keywords is also inadequate by the standard of any self-respecting censor. One can count nearly 100 articles related to the Land Reform, the Hundred Flower Campaign, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forwards, the Korean War, democracy or corruption, none of which (yes, not a single piece) is on the list. Ignatius Wibowo’s review of Perry Link, ed. No Enemies, No Hatred. Liu Xiaobo, in Volume 171, a most obvious target, is also absent.

What we can infer from the list is that it was probably hastily put together by people who have very little knowledge of scholarship in the field. The censors probably used a few keyword searches to locate just enough articles to make a nice, long list to impress their superiors. They did not bother to read the articles or go through the content list manually, thus leaving out a number of obvious ‘offenders’ while including articles that are not really sensitive at all. [Source]

South China Morning Post’s Viola Zhou reported similar observations:

[…] Shakhar Rahav, from the University of Haifa in Israel, said he was surprised to find his 2012 article about Wang Meng, a former culture minister and a well-respected author on the mainland, on the censored list.

Although the piece focused on events in the wake of Tiananmen, which was mentioned in the article’s headline, it was not critical of the government, he said.

“This is not a systematic block of all the problematic articles,” Rahav said. “It is more like a symbolic act: censoring a few keywords and sending some signals abroad.”

[…] Hong Kong Baptist University political scientist Edmund Cheng said preliminary analysis suggested the list might have been hastily compiled by people with little knowledge of academic works.

Cheng’s paper on political activism in Hong Kong was taken down, but articles on the annual pro-democracy rallies, a topic more frequently censored by Chinese media, were left off the list, he said.

[…] “It looks like some people were trying to get their homework done,” Cheng said. “They wanted to show they did something for the cybersecurity law.” [Source]