Database shuts out foreign researchers in ‘security’ move

On 16 March librarians and academics at universities and research institutions in several countries received notices that some access to China’s largest database of academic papers would be ‘temporarily’ curtailed from 1 April. The notifications arrived without clarifying how long this would be.

These notifications, in particular, affected four databases of the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) – PhD and masters theses and dissertations, its database on conference proceedings, the National Population Census of China and the statistical yearbooks database, which the notifications said would be suspended pending “regulatory review” of its cross-border services.

The national Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) had already announced a “cybersecurity review” of the CNKI database in June last year aimed at “preventing national data security risks, maintaining national security and protecting the public interest”.

This followed government measures in February 2022 that it would strengthen national data security pointing to “sensitive” information about China’s major research and technology projects.

According to CAC, CNKI was reportedly holding “a huge amount of” personal information and important data in key industries such as national defence, telecommunications, transport, natural resources, health and finance, as well as other sensitive data covering major projects, important scientific and technological achievements, and key technological developments, official media reported.

German database provider CrossAsia, a service of the Berlin State Library – one of the largest libraries in Europe and an important academic research library – in a communication on its webpage notified readers of the new restrictions. It said “colleagues in China are working towards a continuation of their global business plans and towards reinstating these services after the completion of the review process”.

CrossAsia said some other CNKI services such as the China Academic Journals database – the world’s largest, and most regularly updated, Chinese journal database with over 70 million full-text articles from almost all academic journals published in China – were not affected. Neither were “monograph series reference works and yearbooks”.

Other universities and libraries around the world, including in Japan and South Korea, also received the notifications from Tongfang Knowledge Network Technology Co, which operates CNKI and was formerly a commercial arm of Tsinghua University before being hived off and listed in Shanghai.

The Tongfang notices said suspension was in accordance with the laws on cross-border data transfer and other laws that came into effect in September 2022.

The CAC requires a security view of all important and large data transfers from China to “destinations outside its borders”.

Academics concerned

Many academics commented on the new restrictions on social media. However, as they have yet to come into effect, the impact on their research is not yet clear.

It is “not clear yet how extensive this shutdown is going to be, but it could end foreign access to many academic journals, dissertations and data from China”, Robbie Barnett, an academic expert on Tibet affiliated with King’s College London, said via Twitter.

Tom Mullaney, professor of history and East Asian languages and cultures at Stanford University in the United States, said the suspension was “very bad news for China scholars”. Quoting a colleague, he noted that “many content types that were previously viewed as non-sensitive have now been flagged by the Chinese authorities to be subject to government review”.

“It seems CNKI is the first provider to be targeted by the [Chinese] government, but it will go after other database providers one by one,” he said.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin where she directs its Asia Policy Program, has conducted research on academic freedom of China scholars. She tweeted that research libraries all over the US were receiving the notices.

“CNKI is a pretty essential research tool for scholars studying China, so it’s worrisome,” she said, adding that she was “hoping the suspension is temporary, but I have my doubts”.

James Millward, professor of inter-societal history at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington DC, teaching Chinese, Central Asian and world history, said via Twitter: “This is a huge, disastrous development.”

He hoped the US Library of Congress, the Harvard-Yenching Library specialising in East Asia and other foreign libraries “have kept their paper copies of journals, because the fragility of the digital archive of knowledge is now clear: it hangs on the whims of autocrats”, he added.

Millward tweeted: “PRC [People’s Republic of China] scholars will be even more cut off from the world since their work will not be available outside of China. Despite PRC efforts over the decades to make Chinese an important world language, to promote Chinese scholarship, this says the world shouldn’t read Chinese scholarship.”

Effect on China research

Others noted that Chinese scholars have difficulty getting permission to go abroad and when they do, China curtails the sharing of information, so access to databases such as CNKI are important for international scholars of China.

However, for many China scholars at overseas universities, fieldwork within China had become more difficult even before the COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions and shutdowns.

Others have reported a more restricted environment for academic fieldwork, even after China reopened for travel.

Curtailing access by overseas scholars to China’s archives and databases is not new, with many historical archives being closed off in recent years for ‘digitalisation’, according to the authorities.

However, scholars have noted that the restrictions had become quasi-permanent with permissions for access refused time and again over many years, and more and more collections becoming inaccessible.

Historians have said the Communist Party hopes to control information to influence how foreign academic circles portray China.

Nonetheless, history scholars say restrictions have become so common that it is no longer just about policing sensitive archives to conform with the Party’s narrative, but was a generalised suspicion of overseas academic motives.

Technology experts have pointed to new risks of ‘data scraping’ or automated extraction from the internet into databases, in order to improve big data used for artificial intelligence (AI), including tools such as ChatGPT which depends on large language networks and huge internet data.

“In the race for technology supremacy, particularly between the US and China, being able to protect its technology data has become important to the Chinese government,” a Hong Kong academic told University World News on condition of anonymity, adding that his own university, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, had also received the 16 March notice from CNKI.

CNKI was the best way to get the most recent papers and technology research published in China, he said.

Others noted that many papers and dissertations, and for example the China Census data, had been pre-censored to remove ‘sensitive’ information and statistics, particularly pertaining to ethnic minorities in China.

James Leibold, professor at La Trobe University in Australia specialising in China’s Uyghur and other ethnic minorities, said via Twitter: “Studying China gets more difficult each year. CNKI and its databases have been key sources for those studying human rights abuses in Xinjiang and other skeletons in the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] closet, especially for those researchers who cannot access the PRC and rely on open-source data.”

Big fine

CNKI was investigated in May last year for monopolistic practices, charging “unfair prices” when it renewed subscriptions with the universities. It was ordered to slash its prices by over 30% over three years and split its main database into several smaller ones. In December 2022 CNKI was fined CNY87.6 million (US$12.7 million), or 5% of its 2021 domestic sales revenue, for abusing its dominant market position in China.

As part of its overhaul plan, apart from lowering service prices and better protection of authors’ rights, it also undertook to strengthen “compliance and risk management”. It also undertook to remove a wall that obstructed the sharing of academic papers, especially in the technology sphere, making it more difficult to track how widely individual downloads are disseminated.

Figures published in China’s official Global Times newspaper indicated CNKI has over 1,600 institutional customers overseas in 60 countries and regions, in addition to 32,000 institutional customers from various industries on the Chinese mainland. It said 40% of the material in its archives was exclusive to CNKI.

Core users include top universities, research institutes, government think tanks, enterprises, hospitals and public libraries.