On Academic Freedom and Integrity

Written by Caterina Bellinetti.

Compromise seems to be the word of the century. Compromise also seems to be the reason why Cambridge University Press (CUP) initially agreed to censor certain contents of The China Quarterly at the request of the Chinese government. The first statement that CUP published read that they: “will only consider blocking individual items (when requested to do so) when the wider availability of content is at risk.” I interpreted it as: “Better to sacrifice a part to save some. Better to remain in the market than not being there at all.” While this decision might have made sense from a business viewpoint, it was still disappointing and questionable for those who believe in academic freedom and the need to research and explore historical events in their, sometimes uncomfortable, complexity. As they say, “if learning doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re probably not doing it right.”

Compromise, I was saying. Although I do agree that sometimes it is necessary to “eat a frog or two,” as Mark Twain wrote, to keep pursuing our ultimate goal, it is equally necessary to decide which frogs to eat and, in this specific case, I am not sure I would have swallowed the poor amphibian. The issue to me was about academic integrity, probably a mythological creature in this money-dominated world, but something we are in desperate need of. To comply with the censorship requests of “a Chinese import agency”, as the CUP statement called it, was a step in the direction of an intellectual cage that is becoming bigger and more threatening with each passing day. I also think that this, thankfully brief, kowtow to Chinese censorship was a slap in the face of all those people who analysed the difficult historical moments that are narrated in the almost censored pages of the China Quarterly.

It was fair to object that not many people spend their time reading academic papers, so what was the big deal if 300 or so papers were to become not available in China? The deal was that those few people who actually read those papers are the same people who teach many Chinese students about the complicated, and yet fascinating history of their own country; they are the people who spent their lives looking to understand and uncover the small yet fundamental details that can help us all navigating through this intricate world. Most importantly, it was a question of academic freedom and respect for all those scholars who wrote the papers and for those who risked to not be able to read them.

When I read about the decision of the CUP to self-censor sensible papers I felt sad and personally defeated. I always had the maybe naive idea that academics and scholars were somehow illuminated and above worldly things, that they, we, were pursuing the truth. I grew up around my father, a journalist first, and a professor of history of journalism second. He was the most upright and honest person I have ever met as integrity and freedom guided him at home and on the job. He taught me that writing and researching are hard and that each story deserves to be presented in the most truthful way even if as we all know, truth can be challenging for many reasons. I am not sure what my father would have said about the CUP initial decision. He would have probably addressed the issue saying that when the press, and the academic world in this case, accepts to be controlled, to be censored for the political goals of a party or a government, it is a defeat for each and every one of us.

Fortunately, the news that the CUP decided not to censor the papers arrived early this afternoon. The statement reads that: “The China Quarterly has been informed that CUP intends to repost immediately the articles removed from its website in China. […] Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research.”

What can we learn from the CUP decision to protect academic freedom? My father would have surely told me about Camille Desmoulins, the French journalist and politician active during the French Revolution who lost his life for his ideas and the right to publish them in the midst of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. Desmoulins’ motto has kept its value across the centuries and should probably be remembered and cherished in these times that desperately call for integrity and freedom: “La liberté, voilà mon Dieu.”

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