CUP and China: how should journals deal with censorship?

Threats over content available in China reveal difficult line academic community must tread

August 18, 2017

Cambridge University Press has removed hundreds of articles from a journal website in China after demands from a Chinese government agency.

In a statement, the publishers said that they understood that if it did not comply with the demands, Chinese scholars would lose access to all their content.

The articles cover various issues that China deem to be controversial, including the Cultural Revolution, Xinjiang and Taiwan. So have CUP done the right thing by blocking specific articles in order to preserve access to less controversial content?

Academic work by its very nature is rigorous, independent, evidence-based and designed to reveal truths. Publishers and their journals are the gatekeepers to such knowledge and debate, and by extension have certain duties and responsibilities to both knowledge and their audiences. But we must not forget that publishers are commercial entities that may have their own agendas at play.   

Some will say that CUP did not play its cards right, with critics seeing this worrying development as an example of publishers putting commercial interests ahead of academic ones. And, as we all know, submitting to a blackmailer’s demands can only make them stronger.

Hans van de Ven, a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Cambridge, told me that he thinks CUP faced a “difficult situation”. “We must fight any sort of censorship, of course, but I think that it is by and large a defensible response,” he said. “CUP’ response probably takes into account commercial considerations but at least it also strives to maintain some openness and engage China on the issue.”

He added that “[academics in China] are under all kinds of pressure right now, which is one reason why maintaining some kind of connection with them is so absolutely important. The best that we can do is to work with them, stand up for them and involve them in our work.”

The decision for CUP could not have been easy. It said that “freedom of thought and expression underpinned what we as publishers believe in”. But that all international publishers faced the challenge of censorship.

It has emerged that this is not the first time that the Chinese government has demanded censorship of academic material from CUP in China. Earlier this year, it received a similar demand to pull more than 1,000 e-books from China.

CUP added that it knew of other publishers who have had their entire collections blocked after failing to comply with similar demands from Chinese import agencies. The organisation said that it was “troubled” by the recent rise in demands to remove content and has already planned meetings at the Beijing Book Fair to discuss its position with the relevant agencies.

But Tim Pringle, the editor of China Quarterly, said in a letter to his editorial board that he had contacted editors of other China studies journals, and that none have been aware of any similar demands on their content.

In his statement to the press, Dr Pringle said that the journal’s priorities lie with its authors and readers and that it has a responsibility to uphold academic freedom in the scholarly community.

“As such, we will strive to ensure that articles published in the journal reach as wide an audience as possible. We will continue to work hard to safeguard our academic standards and to maintain our impact, irrespective of subject matter,” he added.

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