CUP reverses China censorship after academic uproar

Cambridge University Press or CUP has reversed its decision to block access in China to more than 300 articles deemed sensitive to the Beijing government after China specialists and academics condemned its decision, made public earlier this month, to cave into pressure from China.

Tim Pringle, editor of the China Quarterly, a highly regarded international journal published by CUP, issued a statement on Monday 21 August, just days after first revealing it would pull the articles. Pringle said he had been informed by CUP officers that “CUP intends to repost immediately the articles removed from its website in China”.

He said CUP had previously taken down 315 articles following an ‘instruction’ from a China import agency “without the consent of the China Quarterly”. Pringle said in a letter made public on 18 August that CUP had blocked the material to avoid having their entire site shut down in China.

The reposting of articles “comes after a justifiably intense reaction from the global academic community and beyond”, said Pringle, a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in his Monday statement. "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,” he added.

Students in Shanghai and Beijing contacted by University World News confirmed that articles on the 1989 Tiananmen events were accessible in China on Monday 21 August on the CUP website even without the need for an internet proxy or VPN – a common way to access foreign websites not available in China.

Journal of Asian Studies

The CUP climbdown came as the Association for Asian Studies’ Journal of Asian Studies, also published by CUP, received notice for a similar request from China’s General Administration of Press and Publications concerning some 100 Journal of Asian Studies articles. It said on 21 August: “At present no Journal of Asian Studies articles have been removed from CUP website search results in China.”

The Association for Asian Studies said in its statement on Monday 21 August: “We oppose censorship in any form and continue to promote a free exchange of academic research among scholars around the world."

The University of Cambridge, which owns CUP, issued a separate statement after the fallout threatened to damage the credibility of its flagship journal of China affairs and its general reputation on academic freedom.

It said on Monday 21 August that CUP “reluctantly took the decision” to block the 315 China Quarterly articles within China but the university claimed it had been a “temporary” measure pending discussion within the academic leadership of the University of Cambridge and 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,” the university said.

“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.”

The move to reinstate the articles was widely welcomed by academics, in particular because it had come so swiftly.

Boycott threat

Amid a barrage of criticism from academics and others last weekend, Anthony Burke, international relations professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia, tweeted: “It’s fair to say many of us who have published with CUP are deeply disappointed they forgot their role in spreading knowledge.”

A threat of a boycott of reviews and submissions by scholars also helped reverse the decision to comply with the Chinese censors, according to Alex Dukalskis, assistant professor at University College Dublin in Ireland.

This included a petition hastily organised by Christopher Balding, who teaches at Peking University HSBC Business School, that stated: “If Cambridge University Press acquiesces to the demands of the Chinese government, we as academics and universities reserve the right to pursue other actions including boycotts of Cambridge University Press and related journals.”

James Millward, professor of history at Georgetown University in the United States, who has published in the China Quarterly, says he has been prevented from going to China for the past decade and a half because he has written about Xinjiang.

In a hard-hitting open letter to CUP on 19 August he said CUP’s decision to censor the China Quarterly in China “is a craven, shameful and destructive concession to the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] growing censorship regime. It is also needless.”

“The works CUP is now censoring from China Quarterly were researched and written by scholars from around the world who believed that upon acceptance these works would actually appear in the journal and not be removed willy-nilly.”

Self-censorship in order to be allowed continued access in China is not new among some China scholars. But Millward pointed out that this is different from the action CUP had taken.

“Some book authors have recently agreed to allow limited censorship of their own books so that they might be published in Chinese translation,” he said, adding that “this differs from what CUP is doing now. First of all, those have been the authors’ own decisions. Secondly, it is Chinese-language versions, not the original English text, that is affected. CUP is censoring the original English-language version of the China Quarterly as it is available in the Chinese market.”

“The result is a misleading, neutered simulacrum of China Quarterly for the China market.”

“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.”

China has not responded to the reports about CUP’s actions. But an article in Global Times, a newspaper owned by the Communist Party but which often expresses strident views that are not always reflective of the government’s position said in a commentary: “The CUP can enjoy academic freedom under British law. But overseas media reports that it set up a server in China hoping to explore the Chinese market, which has to abide by the Chinese law. As long as the Chinese request was made in accordance with the law, there is no reason to be critical.

“Western institutions have the freedom to choose. If they don't like the Chinese way, they can stop engaging with us. If they think China's internet market is so important that they can't miss out, they need to respect Chinese law and adapt to the Chinese way. Now it seems that some Western institutions would like to make adjustments, while some forces are unhappy about it.”