Cambridge Censorship Storm Continues

Cambridge Censorship Storm Continues

Reporting and commentary has continued this week on Cambridge University Press’ swiftly reversed decision to accept demands to hide 315 journal articles from Chinese web users. Much of this has focused on the emergence of other, similar requests. The Association of Asian Studies announced that its Journal of Asian Studies, also published by CUP, had received a similar removal request for 100 articles earlier this year, but that it had not complied. In an online FAQ, the Association said that “we believe it is the first time” that any publisher or database had been asked to remove its articles. “To the best of our knowledge, none of the databases which include JAS have been asked to remove JAS articles. If there are such databases, we would want to know.” On Tuesday, Reuters reported that LexisNexis had withdrawn its Nexis and LexisNexis Academic products from the Chinese market in response to a content removal request.

For its part, CUP has addressed lingering questions about the fate of some 1,000 ebooks that were also targeted, claiming in a statement that “Cambridge University Press is not blocking e-books for the Chinese market. Cambridge University Press makes its entire catalogue of print and e-books available throughout the world, including to China. Chinese importers decide which books they will purchase for resale within China.” Amid uncertainty over China’s response to the publisher’s eventual defiance, the International Publishers Association encouraged restraint, saying that “we applaud the move from Cambridge University Press to restore the censored articles. We ask the Chinese authorities to respect that decision. We urge the authorities not to ban the journal.”

The most visible official response so far has been more censorship, as The Guardian’s Tom Phillips reports:

Cambridge’s change of heart drew praise from Chinese intellectuals. “It is a triumph of morality,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian. “[The decision] should be welcomed, if Cambridge sticks to it.”

Sun Peidong, a Fudan University historian, credited the international academic outcry for Cambridge’s volte-face. “Western intellectuals … collectively made it reversible,” she wrote on Weibo.

Chinese internet users also praised Cambridge’s support for academic freedom, with its Weibo post drawing more than 2,600 shares and 525 overwhelmingly approving comments. “Cambridge University has backbone – academic freedom cannot be threatened by political persecution,” wrote one. Another commented: “What a brilliant decision! Well done Cambridge!”

However, less than 12 hours after the Weibo statement was posted – at about 12.20am local time in China – it had disappeared, apparently scrubbed from the Chinese internet by censors. Those trying to access the post instead found the message: “Sorry, this article has been deleted.” [Source]

Meanwhile, efforts continue to glean insight into official priorities and sensitivities from the apparently carelessly assembled list of targeted articles. From Reuters’ John Ruwitch:

Far from being a well-oiled machine, […] China’s censorship regime is fragmented and often undermined by gaps, workarounds, and perhaps even hasty officials, say academics specializing in Chinese politics.

“Crude is the word,” said Jonathan Sullivan, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham in Britain. “The blunt way in which articles were chosen for censoring … suggest to me that there was not a lot of thought put into it.”

[…] The request to block the articles was passed to Cambridge University Press by its import agent, but without knowing where it originated it is hard to draw firm conclusions, said Sebastian Veg, a China scholar at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris.

“The censorship system is of course centrally directed, but not uniform,” Veg said.

Lee Siu-yau, assistant professor of Greater China studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, suspects the request was a trial balloon. [Source]

As haphazard as the censorship may appear, and as unclear as its origins and exact motives remain, it is consistent with a broader current trend of vigorously asserting the Party’s version of history while combating the so-called “historical nihilism” that challenges it. Other aspects of this push have included the takeover of traditionally liberal journal Yanhuang Chunqiu last summer; court decisions against its former editor, Hong Zhenkuai, for questioning details of a legendary act of revolutionary heroism, and blogger Sun Jie or Zuoyeben for mocking the deaths of two other Communist martyrs; plans to make damage to “the name, likeness, reputation or glory of heroes and martyrs” a civil offense; and the imprisonment of two men for distributing books including “How The Red Sun Rose,” an uncomplimentary account of the Party’s rise to power.

The Washington Post’s John Pomfret examined the Party’s “odious manipulation of history” in an op-ed on Wednesday:

China’s move to demand self-censorship is not an isolated case. It’s just one of many the Communist government has taken in recent years to mold history and historians to serve the needs of the Chinese Communist Party. Party boss Xi Jinping has led a campaign against what he calls “historical nihilism,” the party’s shorthand for attempts to write honestly about the past and mistakes committed by China’s Communist leaders. As part of that campaign, historians and writers have been silenced and jailed, books have been banned and party censors have launched a nationwide campaign to expunge any positive mention of Western political ideas from Chinese college textbooks.

[…] The long hand of the Chinese censor has also reached into the past in China, in a malevolent case of digitalized legerdemain. As the scholar Glenn Tiffert reports in a recent study submitted for publication, Chinese censors have removed scores of articles from the online editions of journals published in China from the 1950s up until the present day. Like China’s shenanigans with the Cambridge University Press, this truly mind-boggling censorship amounts to a massive rewriting of Chinese history through post-publication censorship decades after these pieces were published. Think of the man-hours used and the genesis of a decision to go back into old journals and scrub them of viewpoints considered dangerous today.

[…] What the party is seeking to do, Tiffert surmised, is to paint a new and completely false picture of some of the key moments in Chinese Communist history as a way to further bolster the party’s rule today. Talk about fake news. Indeed, China’s assault on history has reached Orwellian proportions where history, as Orwell himself wrote, is being “scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.” [Source]

A related trend is increasingly restricted physical access to official archives, as explained by Simon Fraser University’s Jeremy Brown in a recently posted interview with CDT.

The Post addressed the CUP situation in an editorial on Monday:

For years, an argument has been made that engagement with China would change China, that contact with the West would influence China toward openness, rule of law and democracy. We have often agreed with this notion, and we still think engagement beats isolation. But the presidency of Xi Jinping is making it harder to defend this proposition. China is actively resisting Western influences and pushing back on digital battlefields. The “China way” means that a paternalistic state, run by a party with a monopoly on power, will decide what people can know and what they can say. Mr. Xi has been making this plain for some years now, as was the case with the detained Hong Kong booksellers, or the crackdown on professors who don’t toe the line, or the roundup over the past two years of human rights lawyers, or the visit Mr. Xi made to leading Chinese news outlets in 2016 to insist that they must serve the Communist Party with absolute loyalty and must “have the party as their family name.”

In this case, the list of articles and book reviews targeted for censorship included topics sensitive to the ruling party, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, policies toward Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities, Taiwan and the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication warned that it would block all articles from the China Quarterly site if these sensitive topics were not removed from the site for a Chinese audience. Should it foolishly follow through on this threat, the impact on China’s people would be, once again, to keep them in the dark about their own history and their government’s policy. This is the real “China way.” [Source]

The Economist suggests that this tendency is only intensifying:

[…] The Communist Party used to allow scholars a modest latitude in their fields of research, permitting, for example, access to foreign academic publications that would be banned from general circulation. But in March the customs authorities tightened rules on importing books. Chinese academics complain that risk-averse librarians will not now order even innocuous scholarly works for fear of offending the customs service. Between 2013 and 2016, an average of 15 weekly issues of The Economist were distributed in China each year without censorship (which usually involves the ripping out of articles by a state-owned distributor). So far this year, just one issue has passed the censors unscathed.

The big question is whether this is a blip or a permanent change. Every five years, the party holds a big congress. Censors always go into overdrive before these events—the next one is due by the end of the year. On the other hand, the crackdown on universities for teaching Western values and on human-rights lawyers began long before the threats against CUP. Xi Jinping, China’s president, seems less willing than his predecessors to let Chinese and Western values quietly coexist. [Source]

South China Morning Post’s Audrey Jiajia Li surveyed the tightening of political control in Chinese education:

To those familiar with the status of academic freedom in China in recent years, this came as no surprise. This year alone, scores of professors have been sacked as a result of their online views. Li Mohai, for example, a faculty member at the Shandong ­Institute of Industry and Commerce, was the victim of a tip-off and lost his post because of his tweet: “‘People’ is a political term while ‘citizen’ is a judicial one. When you are willing to be a slave, you are just one of the ‘people’; but once you want to become a citizen, you might ­already be labelled as the enemy of the people”.

Earlier this month, Shi Jiepeng, assistant professor for classical Chinese at Beijing Normal University was fired because of his “improper comments” on social media, which were “not in sync with mainstream values”. Shi had called Mao Zedong a “devil who caused tens of millions of deaths”, and drew parallels between the ideological education and “brainwashing lectures”.

[…] At Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University, once known for being liberal and open by China’s standards, a directive of “10 forbiddens” was announced early this year, prohibiting the faculty from criticising the party leadership.

[…] Last month, a post on Weibo reported that Zhejiang University had instructed its Foreign Language School to reduce the use of original Western textbooks to 20 per cent. This is not a joke: the ideologues were so nervous about outside influence that they wanted foreign-language students to read fewer materials published in foreign countries. [Source]

At the Beijing Book Fair, AFP’s Joanna Chiu explored the impact that pervasive censorship might have on foreign publishers:

John Lowe, managing director of Mosaic8, an Asian educational publishing specialist based in Tokyo, said the authorities govern the distribution of the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) that companies need for their books to be sold in China.

“So it is in publishers’ interest to not publish something that would anger authorities,” Lowe said.

[… A] representative of another major American publisher, who also requested anonymity, said that a factor influencing self-censorship decisions is that there would be “no point” in producing books that will likely get banned.

“It would be embarrassing to go through the trouble of translating a book from English to Chinese, and then being unable to publish in China,” he said.

“On the other hand, books that are censored in China often sell better abroad,” he said.

“It’s usually a major selling point.” [Source]

Political pressures were also felt at this year’s Hong Kong Book Fair in July, with one attendee estimating that the number of sensitive titles on display had declined by up to 70% compared with the previous year.

With China’s rulers unlikely to be dissuaded from their efforts to control the historical record, potentially complicit foreign publishers may be the best or only effective targets for those seeking to mitigate their effects. At The Scholarly Kitchen, though, Kent Anderson argued that attention should remain focused on the ultimate source of the pressure to censor:

While the boycott generated results, boycotting CUP is what some might call “small beer.” Condemning the actions of the Chinese government is the more important reaction, and one we need to think about more generally. Blaming the publisher is like blaming the victim in cases like this.

[…] CUP was caught up briefly in this new embrace of totalitarian information policies. Most publishers deal with censorship quietly, and aren’t drawn into open controversies like this. The story is not CUP’s manner of dealing with this situation, even though there are some interesting threads to pull on there. The big story of our time is that powerful forces — corporations, governments — are interfering with information dissemination. CUP’s brief retreat to regroup and rally the troops was not, in the end, a “capitulation.” It was a request for help, and help arrived.

In situations like this, we need to put the blame where it truly lies, which is with those who seek to censor, not on those who fall victim to governmental or corporate extortion or bullying. [Source]

But Christopher Balding, a professor at the HSBC Business School in Shenzhen and the author of a petition aimed at CUP, argued at Foreign Policy that there is more blame to go around. He suggested a range of policies going forward including more robust resistance to Chinese attempts to limit speech and “a moratorium on the acceptance of the children of senior Chinese officials.”

Western universities, academics, and publishing houses face a stark choice. If they continue to obey Beijing, they make themselves complicit in promoting censorship and human rights violations. If they walk away, they turn their backs on large revenue streams and potential donors.

Yet good intermediate steps can be taken in dealing with Communist Party demands to impose censorship on Chinese research abroad. First, university libraries should consider unsubscribing from publishing houses or journals that promote censorship by their complicity. Markets that do not promote censorship are ultimately much more important to Cambridge University Press than China. Second, professors should refuse to submit, review, or cite journals that promote censorship by complicity.

Universities need to change the entire way they think about China. Universities selling their brand to China are much too willing to sell their principles as part of the package. The idea that U.S. universities in China operate with any real academic freedom is delusional; if they are to engage, they must accept that they are part of the party machinery.

[…] The naive hope that simple interaction would yield a liberal turn in China has done nothing to stop one of the biggest crackdowns on independent voices in Chinese academia since the Cultural Revolution. Western universities face an actual test of their commitment to free speech, rather than the cheap rhetoric they’re keen to offer at home. [Source]


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