Cambridge University Publisher Removes 300 Academic Articles for the China Market

Cambridge University Press. Image from Cambridge University

[Update August 22, 2017: CUP has reversed its decision and unblocked the banned articles in China.]

Cambridge University Press (CUP) has removed more than 300 academic articles (which were published in the academic journal The China Quarterly) from its website in China, in order to avoid a full shutdown.

In a statement, CUP explained the pressure that they received from China:

We can confirm that we received an instruction from a Chinese import agency to block individuals articles from 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.

CUP said it would find a long-term solution to the censorship problem, and has planned meetings to discuss its position with import agencies at the upcoming Beijing International Book Fair.

Criticism of CUP's approach

However, Greg Distelhorst, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor, is critical of CUP's strategy. He left his comments under the publisher's statement:

When a government or party curates your historical record, it uses your reputation to rewrite history.

Students in China will read the ‘leading scholarly journal’ on China and conclude those political taboos can't be that important.

‘If Tiananmen was really important, wouldn't there be some serious analysis by top international scholars? Guess it was just fake news.’

Your academic readers may be aware of the censorship, but this isn't much better.

When a journal silences accurate scholarship for market access, it either means that core principles are up for negotiation…or the commitment to academic freedom was not authentic in the first place.

Award-winning journalist and author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, Louisa Lim, is also critical of CUP's market concern:

Shock over censorship

The China Quarterly is an interdisciplinary journal covering all aspects of contemporary China, including Taiwan. The list of censored pieces deals with contemporary history and politics in China, including studies on the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Cultural Revolution, the Practice of Rule of Law, political development since Deng Xiaoping‘s reform, the country's political model, tension between state and market, Maoist and Marxist ideology, Falun Gong, labour rights movements, and studies about Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

The journal's editor, Tim Pringle, expressed disappointment over the censorship request in a public statement:

The China Quarterly wishes to express its deep concern and disappointment that over 300 articles and reviews published in the journal have been censored by the Chinese import agencies CEPIEC [China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation Ltd.] and CNPIEC [China National Publications Import & Export (Group) Corporation]. We note too that this restriction of academic freedom is not an isolated move but an extension of policies that have narrowed the space for public engagement and discussion across Chinese society.

CEPIEC is the largest state-owned publication import and export enterprise in China, established in 1987 by the Ministry of Education to meet the demands of foreign academic publications from universities and colleges in China. CNPIEC is another large, state-owned cultural enterprise, which was founded in 1949.

Many concerned scholars have spoken out against CUP's censorship. Sam Crane, a teacher of Chinese politics, urged CUP to give up its China-based site:

Anna L. Ahlers, Mette Halskov Hansen and Rune Svarverud, who are former — and forthcoming — authors in The China Quarterly, wrote a note via Twitter to Cambridge University Press and China Quarterly, saying that they were shocked by the decision:

There is no compromise to the idea of a global system of science. Either the PRC [People's Republic of China] takes part in it or not: that is a decision that has to be taken in China, not in Europe/outside. We sincerely hope that the editors of The China Quarterly will react strongly against the move by CUP on behalf of all its dedicated authors and readers. Hopefully CUP will reverse its policy and insist on academic freedom even if Chinese authorities do not.

Greg Distelhorst elaborated his view in an open letter to CUP, which was co-signed by Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor at Cornell University:

Chinese students and scholars reading a censored version of The China Quarterly will encounter only historical facts and scholarly analyses approved by political authorities. Worse Chinese readers will learn this sanitized history directly from the official website of Cambridge University Press.

This censored history of China will literal bear the seal of Cambridge University.

Scholarship does not exist to give comfort to the powerful. Nor is its purpose to find and exploit the largest market.

Christopher Balding, associate professor at HSBC Business School in Shenzhen, launched a petition demanding that CUP refuse the censorship request made by the Chinese government.

Fallout from China's ideological struggle

The pressure faced by CUP and other foreign publishers is the ripple effect of China's internal ideological struggle, which previously mainly targeted Chinese publications.

China has viewed university education as one of the most important ideological battlefields since 2013, when university professors were instructed by the Central Committee General Office of the Chinese Communist Party not to teach seven subjects — including freedom of the press, past mistakes of the Communist Party, and citizen rights.

In 2015, mainland Chinese universities were ordered to ban textbooks that promote Western values. Recently, a professor from Beijing Normal University, Shi Jiepeng, was sacked for calling former leader Mao Zedong “a devil” on social media.

The censorship practice has already affected Chinese academic publications — in Hong Kong, for instance, even philosophy book projects are censored. Baptist University’s Director of Liberal and Cultural Studies, Dr. Wong Kwok Kui, recently revealed that two censorship requests were made by a publisher with a mainland Chinese background. One incident happened in 2016, as reported by Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP):

Last year, when compiling an anthology on Nietzsche conferences, Wong said he was asked by the publisher to request that a writer amend an essay which criticised Xi Jinping as well as China’s policy towards Hong Kong and Taiwan. Wong refused, and the project was cancelled, despite everything being ready for publication.

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