Cambridge University Press removes journal articles under Chinese pressure

Publisher pulls articles from academic website in China at request of communist government agency

August 18, 2017
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Cambridge University Press has removed hundreds of papers and book reviews from the online version of one of its journals in China after a government agency threatened to block access to the website.

The 315 articles pulled from China Quarterly focused on issues that the communist state deems politically sensitive, such as the Tiananmen Square protests, Tibet and Taiwan, dating from the last few months back to the 1960s.

A China expert described the incident as “very disturbing” and said it was part of a wider crackdown on Western literature, which follows political unrest in Hong Kong and comes ahead of the ruling party’s national congress later this year.

In a letter to the board of China Quarterly, editor Tim Pringle, senior lecturer in labour, social movement and development at Soas, University of London, says that China’s General Administration of Press and Publication had sent the publisher “a list of over 300 China Quarterly articles and book reviews to be pulled out from the CUP site in China”.

This followed a similar request relating to more than 1,000 CUP e-books, Dr Pringle says.

While China Quarterly is the only major China studies journal to be affected to date, “it is likely other journals will be affected in the near future,” he says.

CUP confirmed that it had “complied with this initial request to remove individual articles, to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”.

“We do not, and will not, proactively censor our content and will only consider blocking individual items (when requested to do so) when the wider availability of content is at risk,” the publisher said.

CUP added that other publishers have had “entire collections of content blocked in China” for not allowing the import agencies to block access to specific articles.

Comment: how should journals deal with censorship?

The publisher added that it was “troubled” by a recent increase in requests to remove content in China and has already “planned meetings to discuss our position with the relevant agencies at the Beijing Book Fair”.

“We will not change the nature of our publishing to make content acceptable in China, and we remain committed to ensuring that access to a wide variety of publishing is possible for academics, researchers, students and teachers in this market,” the publisher added.

In a statement, Dr Pringle expressed “deep concern and disappointment” at the censorship.

“This restriction of academic freedom is not an isolated move but an extension of policies that have narrowed the space for public engagement and discussion across Chinese society,” he said.

The journal’s priorities “lie with its authors and readers, and its responsibility to uphold academic freedom in the scholarly community,” Dr Pringle added. “As such, we will strive to ensure that articles published in the journal reach as wide an audience as possible.”

Hans van de Ven, professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Cambridge, described China’s move as “a very disturbing development”, and “part of a wider crackdown on the availability of certain Western textbooks and literature in China”.

He said that he suspected that the move was aimed at silencing possible sources of student dissent. Three student activists, including Joshua Wong, have recently been sentenced to jail for the part they played in the 2014 Occupy protests in Hong Kong.

“We are headed towards a new party congress in November, which is an important one for president Xi Jinping,” Professor van de Ven said. “If it’s preceded by a huge demonstration somewhere there will be enormous trouble for him.

“This is [also] part of a general broader decline of what academics in China can do, which has been going on for a number of years now.”

Update: The University of Cambridge said on 21 August that the decision to block the articles would be reversed, and that the articles would be made available again.

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