Katy Perry, Publishers, and Self-censorship in China

On Monday, CDT Chinese reposted a letter circulating on Weibo which purportedly shows singer Katy Perry’s pledge to behave harmoniously during a prospective Chinese tour. “Fruit Sister” has performed in China in the past, but occasionally stumbled on moral or political sensitivities there. The letter includes promises to “observe the laws and regulations in China, comply with the management of the regulators,” and not to “add or change any content without authorization,” “do or say anything religious or political,” or “participate in any activities that jeopardize China’s unity and integrity.”

Perry is not invariably associated with the world of academic . On Twitter, however, the University of Nottingham’s Jonathan Sullivan linked the letter with the ongoing storm over academic presses and restriction of Chinese users’ access to selected journal articles.

In August, public pressure spurred a hasty reversal of Cambridge University Press’ decision to comply with Chinese censorship demands. Last week, The Financial Times’ Ben Bland reported that German publisher Springer, whose journals include Nature and Scientific American, had removed at least 1,000 articles, and perhaps many more. As in the CUP case, the list of targeted articles appears to have been haphazardly assembled based on crude searches for sensitive keywords, including many uncritical or tangentially related pieces as a result. Once again, scholars have reacted angrily to the encroachment on academic freedom, particularly in light of Springer’s expanding business interests in China from plans to publish a book by Xi Jinping to a new educational partnership with Chinese tech giant Tencent.

On Monday, Reuters’ Christian Shepherd reported Chinese authorities’ response to the story and ensuing anger:

“All publications imported into the Chinese market must accord with Chinese laws and regulations. The publications’ import management company is responsible for carrying out content checks on publications,” the State Council Information Office, the Chinese government’s information and propaganda arm, said in a faxed response to a request for comment sent by Reuters last Wednesday.

The Chinese government made a similar statement after Britain’s Cambridge University Press (CUP) in August removed and then reposted about 300 papers and book reviews published by the China Quarterly journal from its Chinese website.

Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has heightened censorship, tightened controls on the internet, and strengthened Communist Party authority over and other institutions.

[…] One of Springer Nature’s China distributors, the state-run China National Publications Import and Export (Group) Corp, did not immediately respond to a request for comment when contacted by Reuters on Monday.

It was unclear if the decision by Springer Nature to block content followed a request by just one of its China distributors or a number of different distributors. It was also unclear whether the distributor request was made at the behest of the Chinese government. [Source]

The Financial Times’ Bland followed up his original report on Saturday with an account of publishers’ varying responses to quizzing about their stances on Chinese censorship. Sage Publications admitted that it might agree to content withdrawals following “consultations with learned societies, editors and others shaped by the specific request.” The University of Chicago Press, MIT Press, and Oxford University Press, on the other hand, all pledged not to block content.

“China can do what it likes at home but the real issue is for western academia, media organisations and other companies,” [Jonathan Sullivan] said. “As is China’s wont, they are dividing and ruling.”

[…] China experts fear that so long as publishers remain divided, Beijing will use its growing economic power and influence to pick them off one by one.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, called on publishers to resist Beijing and test its willingness to block access en masse to the world’s greatest producers of scientific and educational content.

“Some kind of co-ordinated effort is needed,” said Prof Wasserstrom, who is also editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, one of the Cambridge University Press publications the Chinese authorities tried to censor. “At a certain point, you have to walk away from the Chinese market, no matter how lucrative.” [Source]

The University of San Francisco’s Peter Lorentzen reported another response:

Peking University and HSBC Business School’s Chris Balding has been another outspoken critic of concessions to China by Western publishers, and addressed the latest case in a post at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute: Analysis blog on Monday. Although “topics on a narrow range of politically sensitive topics have always widely been understood to be off limits,” he wrote, under Xi Jinping “the space for any academic freedom has effectively disappeared.” He highlights three factors in this closing-up: the threat of prosecution hanging over scholars for revealing vaguely defined “state secrets”; the leverage that Chinese funding gives Beijing in discouraging potentially sensitive research; and the concealment or destruction of historical archives within China. In response, he argues, Western universities and scholars

Foreign universities, professors, and publishers need to fundamentally change their view of how to engage with China and Chinese universities. Foreign higher education outlets cannot take for granted their influence on promoting and free speech. It was generally previously assumed that simply by engaging with Chinese universities, academics, and students the liberal values of the western academy would persuade Chinese counterparts. This is empirically wrong and cannot simply be assumed to occur through osmosis.

[…] Academic publishing houses are the most obvious source of explicit censorship demands. While their business interests are clear, they cannot simultaneously claim to uphold global ideals of academic freedom of speech while collaborating with Beijing. It is not mere censorship when you acquiesce to Beijing’s demands but also publish books by Chairmen Xi Jinping. This has moved from abiding by local laws to active collaboration with an oppressive regime. Global universities must be willing to pressure publishing houses that choose to collaborate to restrict speech that revenue from other markets will come under pressure. In addition, to coalitions willing to pressure publishers it may require adaptations of new business models to ensure free flows of research on China.

The world of Chinese research and academia is changing. The censorship methods employed by the Party are much more pervasive and subtle than the widely recognized explicit demands. Standing by principles is not without cost and the western academy has relied historically on relatively costless methods of interaction assuming a move towards common values. These methods and assumptions need a complete rethink and will require foreign universities, professors, and publisher to recognize that ideals come with potential costs that may soon require a down payment. [Source]

Balding’s essay kicks off a week-long special issue on information controls at CPI Analysis, which editors Jonathan Sullivan and James Farley introduced on Monday:

Jeffrey Wasserstrom provides analysis of differences in censorship through the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Guobing Yang considers the impact that censorship has had on memory and the extent to which policies have not necessarily led to ‘dead-ends’, but in detours of communication and diffusion. Jonathan Hassid explores recent developments in media control during the Xi era while Rongbin Han casts a similar eye over trends in online censorship.

These are perennial topics in China Studies, which will continue to interest China scholars. But a relatively new development is the potential for China to impose its norms and preferences on non-Chinese actors. From Chinese influence on the content of Hollywood movies to Chinese student associations interest in opinions voiced in university classrooms, and paid Party propaganda masquerading as news in western broadsheets like the New York Times and Telegraph, the expansion of China’s influence on information environments outside of China is noteworthy.

And in academia, western presses have recently been subject to the restriction of their content made available in China. This is a particularly resonant development because academia is founded on the idea of freedom of expression and information. Moreover, it highlights a calculus that western institutions will increasingly have to deal with: how willing are we to compromise our values for access to the Chinese market? […][Source]

The Washington Post also commented on the Springer case in an editorial on Saturday:

SPRINGER NATURE publishes books and prestigious journals, including Nature and Scientific American, and portrays itself as a champion of open access to reports of scientific research. Its website declares that “research is a global endeavor and the free flow of information and ideas is at the heart of advancing discovery.” Yet in China, the company has compromised this core principle.

[…] China’s Great Firewall, a gigantic digital cordon, attempts to keep out information that Chinese authorities find potentially threatening. Within China, the Internet is policed by a vast censorship regime backed by restrictive laws on what can be expressed. For foreigners wanting to do business in China with products that disseminate information, this poses a vexing problem: To obey Chinese law means to give in to censorship.

[…] It was once thought that Western intellectual and business engagement with China would promote liberalization and was preferable to isolation. But rather than show more tolerance, China is showing less. President Xi Jinping has been on a crusade against free expression, from the press to universities to social media. Foreigners must be careful not to abet this repressive campaign. When it comes to the principle of free expression, there is no way to say that half or even 99 percent is good enough. A journal collection missing pieces of China’s history — the Cultural Revolution, or Tiananmen Square massacre — is absent truth. Springer Nature should reverse its censorship and insist that the Chinese people be exposed fully to the “free flow of information and ideas.” [Source]

At ChinaFile, meanwhile, Orville Schell examined many of the same themes in terms of Donald Trump’s current Asia tour and China policy:

What now seems to be getting challenged is the very idea of old-style “engagement.” There’s been a persistent idea over the last several decades that if the United States stuck with and embraced China, allowed it into the World Trade Organization, included it in the rules-based Western order, exchanged hundreds of thousands of students, invited more Chinese sports teams, ballet companies, orchestras etc. to perform, China would slowly become appreciative, more like us, more congenial, and less disruptive of the existing world order, as so-called “stake holders” that wanted to fit. In many ways that has not happened, and I think this idea doesn’t have as much hold on this current administration. At the same time, the attitude of the American public at large also seems to be slowly changing; the notion that animated the last few decades that the U.S. and China were on slowly converging, rather than diverging, trajectories, is no longer credible. The Chinese have been increasingly assertive, aggressive, and even provocative, and I think we are now seeing some blowback. This is all the more true after the 19th Party Congress and Xi’s declaration that we are in a “new era” where the U.S. is in decline and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is in ascendancy. And, there now seems to be a growing sentiment, inside the Trump administration as well, that we have hit an inflection point, that it would be dangerous to continue to allow ourselves to be “played,” whether in trade, investment, cultural exchange, or military cooperation, by Beijing. I think this Asia trip will be a test of what kind of an inflection point we are actually now at with China, and what response is best suited of this “new era.”

In talking with U.S. officials, I think we can expect few important public deliverables from China at this summit. Perhaps more important, we should carefully watch what happens down the line after Trump returns to Washington, in terms of how the White House responds to the reality that, in too many ways, the playing field is out of level for Americans in China. Whether you’re a businessman, a media rep, a scholar, a civil society actor, or a religious leader, the notion of reciprocity is being sorely stretched. The U.S. has been open to China, while China has been increasingly closed to us. In the weeks going forward, it would not surprise me to see the Trump Administration, despite all the niceties of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago friendship with Xi, begin to play a much harder, even confrontational, game with China in ways that may surprise us. [Source]