Academics have warned of the unpalatable choices that academic publishers face when working with China, as Cambridge University Press became the latest firm to reveal that some of its journals have been blocked by the state.
CUP came under fire in 2017 for removing 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 publisher later announced that it would reinstate the articles, but a CUP spokesman told Times Higher Education that some import and export agencies have excluded two of its journals – The China Quarterly, the title involved in the 2017 row, and The Journal of Asian Studies – from the list of publications that they are making available in China.
The news follows last month’s announcement from Taylor & Francis that Chinese import agencies opted not to include 83 of its 1,466 social science and humanities journals in the package available to purchase by Chinese libraries.
Springer Nature took a different approach, opting to block Chinese access to at least 1,000 articles on subjects that Beijing deemed to be politically sensitive in response to demands from Chinese export agencies. A spokeswoman told THE this month that none of its journals has been banned by China.
Hans van de Ven, professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Cambridge, said that the developments showed that “the choice for publishers is to self-censor by blocking supposedly objectionable material from their journals or by accepting that their Chinese importers just cancel a subscription”.
He added that China’s blocking of journals “fits in squarely with the [Chinese Communist Party’s] tightening of its controls over university campuses” and “speaks to the nervousness of China’s leadership as it goes into a year of difficult anniversaries, including that of the Tiananmen Square incident 30 years ago”.
“The deepening of academic relations with China over the past three decades has been a wonderfully positive development, but the tightening restrictions on academic freedom in China are making such collaboration far less attractive to students from around the world, as well as to US and European universities,” Professor van de Ven said.
Tim Pringle, senior lecturer in labour, social movements and development at SOAS University of London and editor of The China Quarterly, said that “the latest developments demonstrate that state censorship of published research continues to tighten in China”.
“Journals such as The China Quarterly that refuse to concur with this policy are facing repercussions from import agencies that deselect the journal in question from the publisher’s bundle,” he said.
“While this will not prevent specific articles from being shared through other channels, there is a clear impact on subscriptions in China. The alternative of going along with the censorship through self-censorship is out of the question for The China Quarterly and other China area journals.”
Dr Pringle added that the implications of the increasing censorship are “profound and negative”.
“In any country, restrictions on ‘sensitive’ topics generate a debilitating research climate that constricts academic rigour well beyond the areas of sensitivity. Caution and even fear spreads to the university classroom, academic department meetings and on into government policy. Research that should hold policy up to scrutiny is avoided, and a key check and balance is consequently removed,” he said.
“The impact is further heightened in authoritarian countries where political democracy and an unrestricted media are absent.”
Christopher Balding, an associate professor at Fulbright University Vietnam who lost his post at Peking University HSBC Business School in Shenzhen after being critical of the Chinese government, agreed that the developments highlight that academic publishers “don’t have much room to deal with China”.
“They either have to say, ‘we’re going to accept not getting this revenue’ or ‘we’re going to comply with China,’” he said, adding that “there is no way that the publishers can convince the [Chinese Communist Party] to change its mind”.
Dr Balding encouraged academics and universities to refuse to pay for services from publishers that chose to self-censor.