Cambridge University Press, censorship in China and the need to stand up for academic freedom

Written by Paul Gardner.

The decision by Cambridge University Press to censor articles on behalf of the Chinese government is a terrible error of judgement and a serious threat to academic freedom. CUP has not only tarnished its own reputation but, by association, the reputation of one of the world’s most famous universities and indeed the whole academic community in Britain.

The decision has rightly provoked widespread outrage. Louisa Lim, the author of Tiananmen Revisited, said on Twitter that it was an “appalling” example of “the profit motive being valued over academic freedom”. Professor James A. Millward, from Georgetown University, described it as ‘a craven, shameful and destructive concession to the PRC’s growing censorship regime’.  Perhaps CUP will derive some comfort from the fact that their position has at least received robust support from China’s Global Times!

The statement issued by CUP suggests that, like Big Brother in 1984, they are capable of “holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”. It is an appalling example of doublethink. It claims that ‘Freedom of thought and expression underpin what we as publishers believe in’ despite the fact that its censorship of articles in China clearly undermine freedom of thought and expression. CUP adds that it “will not change the nature of our publishing to make content acceptable in China”, despite the fact that this is exactly what it has done.

The decision to censor articles published in China Quarterly deprives Chinese students and academics of access to scholarship on a series of areas the Chinese Communist Party regards as sensitive subjects. CUP did at least provide a list of the articles which it has censored in China. An analysis of the list by M. Taylor Fravel from MIT shows that the Cultural Revolution tops the list with 125 censored articles; 87 articles concern ethnicity and borders, such as Tibet and Xinjiang; 35 are on Tiananmen; 33 on Taiwan; 32 on CCP leaders, particularly Mao; with other articles on subjects like the legal and political systems, activists, the military and Hong Kong.


M. Taylor Fravel’s visualisation of the censored articles

Zhan Jiang, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told The Guardian that: “This is unprecedented that the censorship has reached out to the academic sphere. There are many Chinese scholars who return to China after studying overseas and they need to do research based on material in English. This means that there will be limits and more hardships on their research.” 

In Tiananmen Revisited: The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Louisa Lim describes taking the famous photo of Tank Man to the campuses of four Beijing universities whose students had been instrumental in the 1989 movement. Out of 100 students, only 15 correctly identified the picture.

Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party is making increasing efforts to create an information environment in which inconvenient sections of Chinese history, like the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen, are simply a blur, even to its most educated citizens. As Greg Distelhorst and Jessica Chen Weiss said in a damning open letter to CUP, Chinese students and scholars “will now learn this sanitised history directly from the official website of Cambridge University Press”. It makes the publisher an active participant “in the rewriting of Chinese history”. As they argue, in future this censored history “will literally bear the seal of Cambridge University”.

This sets a dangerous precedent. The decision will make it easier for the CCP to pressure other organisations, both inside and outside academia, to compromise freedom of expression. Chinese officials will argue that if such an illustrious organisation as CUP is prepared to implement the government’s requests to alter content in China, why not you?

As China’s economic power has grown the Chinese Communist Party is increasingly using that power to put pressure on individuals, businesses, organisations, and countries around the world to act in ways that the Party deems appropriate. It is dispiriting to see multinationals increasingly prepared to compromise freedom of expression in order to avoid financial punishment. It is more depressing still to see governments across Europe increasingly prepared to compromise their principles in order to avoid upsetting the CCP.

One area that should indeed be underpinned by freedom of thought and expression is academia. After the CUP decision, there is an urgent need for the academic community to openly debate the implications of the growing influence of the Chinese authorities in academia beyond its own borders.

It is great to see so many Chinese students at our universities. We all gain from the opportunity to meet, study, research, and exchange ideas with people from other countries and cultures. However, we need to be confident that the fear of losing this valuable income does not mean that scholars and institutions will compromise their academic integrity in order to avoid offending the Chinese Communist Party, or ‘hurting the feelings of the Chinese people’ as the CCP puts it.

There are Chinese government funded Confucius Institutes within many of our universities. As I know from direct experience, they can play a valuable role in Chinese language teaching and helping to improve our understanding of Chinese culture. However, it is vital that the relationship between universities and the Confucius Institutes is transparent and that they are not involved in developing and running degree courses on China.

The risks are exacerbated where there is Chinese funding for academic institutions. In China the dividing line between the CCP and business and wealthy individuals is often unclear. It is rarely possible to confidently assert that Chinese funding is not, in some way, linked to the Chinese government.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan, the Director of the China Policy Institute and a member of China Quarterly’s Executive Committee, points out that China’s influence has already “been leveraged to prevent events on campuses by speakers like the Dalai Lama who are persona non grata in China. Numerous scholars have been refused visas to China because of their work, a symbolic threat that is particularly pernicious for junior scholars fearful of the effects of doing “sensitive” research”.

However, Cambridge University Press’s decision to act as the CCP’s censor is a particularly serious threat to academic freedom. I realise that CUP has substantial business interests in China but it is also a significant part of the academic community, not just in this country but across the world. Compromising its own principles in this way hurts not just their reputation but the reputation of academia more generally.

CUP’s capitulation to Chinese censorship demands is particularly sad because they have failed to realise their own strength in this situation. China has been keen build its universities into world beating institutions. Banning access to all CUP’s publications in China would hardly be compatible with that aim. As James A. Millard suggests: “It’s a safe bet that most Chinese academic and political leaders are not so stupid, and will not continue along this academic cul-de-sac unless CUP and other publishers enable them”.

In order to limit the damage, CUP must now reverse their decision to censor articles in China. If CUP does not change its decision, the editors of the China Quarterly could take the journal elsewhere. However, my concern is that this would let CUP off the hook. Defending freedom of thought and expression in academia should be a matter for the whole academic community, not just those involved in research on China.

Every scholar should make it clear to Cambridge University Press, as James A. Millard has said, that if it does not reverse its decision “it cannot rely on our continued respect and cooperation”.

Peking University economics professor Christopher Balding has created a petition calling on “Cambridge University Press to refuse the censorship request not just for the China Quarterly but on any other topics, journals or publication that have been requested by the Chinese government”. The petition adds that “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”.

This will not be the last time that the Chinese authorities make demands of an individual scholar or academic institution that would compromise their academic freedom. If not here, where will the academic community draw the line?

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