Academics Condemn New Wave of Journal Censorship

In August, news that Cambridge University Press had agreed to hide a haphazardly compiled list of journal articles from readers in China prompted a storm of criticism from academics. The protests, petitions, and threatened boycotts quickly spurred a reversal of the press’ decision. On Tuesday, however, The Ben Bland reported that another major academic publisher, Springer, had similarly hidden “more than 1,000” online articles from the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics. These, too, appear to have been carelessly selected based on crude keyword searches for sensitive terms.

While some of the blocked articles would clearly have upset Communist party officials, others appeared to have been innocently swept up by based on keyword searches. That seems to mirror the approach used by Cambridge before it reversed course.

[…] One Chinese academic who published a politically neutral article in the Journal of Chinese Political Science several years ago was shocked to learn it had been blocked.

“It’s not very smart as my article was actually quite positive,” she said, asking for her name not to be used as she feared reprisals for being associated with banned content. [Source]

A report from publishing magazine The Bookseller includes Springer’s explanation of the move, which does not appear on the publisher’s website:

“As a global publisher we are required to take account of the local rules and regulations in the countries in which we distribute our published content. China’s regulatory requirements oblige us to operate our SpringerLink platform in compliance with their local distribution laws. These local regulations, which are enforced by our distributors who are the officially appointed guardians of all content, only apply to local access to content.

“This does mean that access to a small percentage of our content (less than 1%) is limited in mainland China but remains accessible in the 180+ other markets in which our content is distributed, and in China itself via other means. This action is deeply regrettable but has been taken to prevent a much greater impact on our customers and authors and is in compliance with our published policy – see This is not editorial censorship and does not affect the content we publish or make accessible elsewhere in the world. It is a local content access decision in China done to comply with specific local regulations.

“In not taking action we ran the very real risk of all of our content being blocked. We do not believe that it is in the interests of our authors, customers, or the wider scientific and academic community, or to the advancement of research for us to be banned from distributing our content in China. Access to 99% of Springer Nature content is therefore safeguarded for all our customers in China and we will continue to work with the regulator and other Chinese authorities to minimise the content affected, reduce and ideally eliminate these restrictions on behalf of the global research community and wider society. We remain absolutely committed to safeguarding the integrity of the scientific record by publishing robust and insightful research across the world, supporting the development of new areas of knowledge.” [Source]

Bland noted on Twitter that Springer’s statements on the scale of the censorship could be misleading:

Academics have once again responded furiously. James Millward, who wrote a lengthy condemnation of CUP in August, commented:

Peking University professor Chris Balding, who also spoke out about the CUP case and initiated a petition aimed at the press, called for a boycott, posting a Twitter poll that indicated widespread support:

Others also took to Twitter:

The New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández reported more responses:

“Springer’s censorship is a disservice to everyone,” said Kevin Carrico, a China scholar at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “Springer’s success relies on its authors and its readers, and both are being cheated in this arrangement.”

Michael Cox, a scholar who serves as editor of the International Politics journal, one of the Springer Nature publications that is being censored in China, said he would press the publisher to reconsider.

“My first priority is to maintain and defend the principle of ,” said Mr. Cox, who is also professor emeritus at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

[…] Springer Nature did not elaborate on its methods, saying only that it deferred to the local authorities in deciding which articles to block.

Several scholars expressed concern that Springer Nature had seemingly given the Chinese authorities such expansive authority.

“This is not even effective censorship,” Professor Carrico said. “It takes such a clumsy broad-brush approach that even completely uncontroversial articles could be blocked.” [Source]

At the China Policy Institute Analysis blog, the University of Nottingham’s Jonathan Sullivan expanded on his comments in The Financial Times’ original report. One of Sullivan’s papers, an innocuous five-year-old piece on using Weibo posts as teaching material, is among those suppressed by Springer.

[…] I said, and believe, that it is “a symbol of how unprepared we are in the west for China’s influence expanding outwards.” China sets the rules for what goes on in its territory, and whether we agree with them or not we have to respect that. Censorship by western academic institutions, including trade and university presses, is thus a story about us and our values. China is set on pursuing its own model and it is evident at this point that the west is not going to have much impact on the contours of Chinese norms. The question is whether Chinese norms will start to impact our own behaviours. In fact, there is sufficient evidence that the question is not “whether” but rather “to what extent”.

As China’s global engagement (an unequivocal net positive for the world in my view) broadens and intensifies, and the promise of access to its market exerts an ever greater pull, actions like Springer Nature’s are bound to increase in frequency. Commercial actors of course, from Facebook to Norwegian salmon farmers, work to economic, cost-benefit calculi that do not leave much room for consideration of values. Except, as exemplified by Cambridge University Press’ u-turn, where reputational damage prompts (let’s give benefit of the doubt) a reconsideration of principles. It remains to be seen how Springer Nature will respond, although trade presses have somewhat different considerations than university presses.[Source]

Former NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, now based at the University of Melbourne, addressed the Springer case and others in a discussion of Chinese authorities’ mounting influence on and interference in both foreign and domestic academia at The Lowy Interpreter:

Another case has emerged regarding work published in Critical Asian Studies by two Italian scholars, Claudia Pozzana and Alessandro Russo, on the prominent Chinese intellectual Wang Hui. Two articles were published without permission in Chinese volumes, one of which was edited by Wang Hui himself. Among the material removed was a large chunk of a paper discussing the protest movement of 1989 and Wang Hui’s own analysis of the movement. ‘The censors’ zealous hand has struck not only the most critical points from our papers but, in doing so, has removed the basis of our intent,’ a statement from the Italian academics read. It is notable that they refrained from blaming Wang Hui, even though his actions whitewashed the past, as if the events of 1989 had simply not happened.

[…] In a recent episode of the Little Red Podcast, the University of Melbourne’s Dayton Lekner described how he was interrogated by internal security over his research on the 1959 Anti-Rightist movement, while legal scholar Glenn Tiffert of the Hoover Institution unveiled his research showing empirical evidence of Chinese censorship of the electronic archives of legal journals to excise evidence of earlier debate on legal issues.

One academic spoke of how, while visiting China, they did not dare telephone their Chinese collaborators for fear that contact alone would cause trouble. Another Westerner reported that, following the 2011 pro-democracy protests nicknamed the Jasmine revolution, the names of certain flowers were censored from their work because of their political sensitivity. […] [Source]