It is time to “reconsider” how Chinese censorship is dealt with by the rest of the world, according to an academic who started a petition against Cambridge University Press’ now-reversed decision to block access to politically sensitive journal articles in China.
Christopher Balding, associate professor of economics at Peking University, said that for too long universities have assumed that China would gradually embrace academic freedom as a result of interaction with the West, but it is evident that this approach is not working.
CUP removed 315 articles from the website of its flagship Chinese studies journal in China because an agency of the Communist government threatened to pull all its content if it did not comply.
The journal articles and book reviews in question featured in China Quarterly between the 1960s and recent months and covered issues that the Communist state deems politically sensitive, such as the Tiananmen Square protests, the Cultural Revolution, Tibet and Taiwan.
Experts believe it to be part of a wider clampdown on Western literature that responds to political unrest in Hong Kong and anticipates the ruling party’s national congress later this year.
On 21 August the University of Cambridge, of which CUP is part, said that the articles would be reinstated, following a review by the "academic leadership of the university".
The incident had sparked anger among the academic community with a flurry of open letters denouncing the decision and the petition that calls on CUP to refuse the China Quarterly censorship request.
Professor Balding’s petition, which had more than 700 signatures, says: “As academics, we believe in the free and open exchange of ideas and information on all topics, not just those we agree with. It is disturbing to academics and universities worldwide that China is attempting to export its censorship on topics that do not fit its preferred narrative.”
It adds that, if CUP complied with China’s demands, “academics and universities reserve the right to pursue other actions including boycotts of Cambridge University Press and related journals”.
Professor Balding told Times Higher Education that for too long universities have just accepted the status quo with regard to China.
“Everybody is acquiescing to Chinese demands on censorship, and nobody is taking a step back to reconsider why we are doing the things that we are doing,” he said. “For too long the assumption was that if there was interaction that there would be a change of thinking in China. But clearly, there has been a pretty significant crackdown, so there needs to be a definite rethinking of approach.”
In an open letter to CUP, James Millward, professor of history at Georgetown University, who has previously been banned from travelling to China, said that the decision to censor the content was “a craven, shameful and destructive concession to the People’s Republic of China’s growing censorship regime”.
He adds that the publisher had removed the articles without consulting the authors, countermanded the peer review process and overridden the journal’s editors about its content.
“This comprises a clear violation of academic independence outside as well as inside China,” he writes.
But Hans van de Ven, a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Cambridge, said that the publisher faced a “difficult situation” and that striving to be open and to engage with China on the issue was important.
The Cambridge spokesman said: "While this temporary decision was taken in order to protect short-term access in China to the vast majority of the Press’ journal articles, the university’s academic leadership and the Press have agreed to reinstate the blocked content, with immediate effect, so as to uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the university’s work is founded.”