Remain vigilant on Chinese censorship, says academic

Publishers should consult with journal editors over censorship requests, says China Quarterly committee member

September 25, 2017
Chinese censorship protester
Source: Getty
‘A barrier for speech’: ‘we shouldn’t let these university presses, who should be committed to academic freedom, do the censorship for the government,’ said one academic

Universities with transnational education activities in China need to be alert to the fact that course material could be censored, according to an academic involved with a journal recently at the centre of a censorship row.

Jane Duckett, director of the Scottish Centre for China Research at the University of Glasgow, said that universities should be aware of the changes going on in the Asian country, which is experiencing a clampdown on Western ideas ahead of the Congress of the ruling party later this year.

She added that it is too soon to say whether academics need to change their approach when dealing with the communist country, as others have suggested, because it was not yet clear whether the restrictions will be lifted after the key political event.

Professor Duckett is on the executive committee of The China Quarterly, one of the leading Chinese studies journals published by Cambridge University Press. Last month, the publisher removed more than 300 articles about topics the Chinese state deems to be politically sensitive – such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet and Taiwan – from its website in China after a request from an import agency.

The move sparked uproar among academics, with one even starting a petition threatening to boycott the publisher’s journals and calling for a new approach to dealing with Chinese censorship. Within days, CUP reversed its decision and reinstated the articles in China.

Professor Duckett said that a “key lesson for the future” for publishers dealing with similar requests is to consult academics involved in running the journals.

“In this case it is The China Quarterly [so] the editor is extremely knowledgeable about China. Had they consulted with him they [CUP] might have made a more informed decision about what they were doing,” she told Times Higher Education.

“One of the big issues is that CUP censored on behalf of the communist party, and that is taking it a step beyond what already happens [in terms of direct government censorship]. A view of a lot of the academics who were in uproar about it was that we shouldn’t let these university presses, who should be committed to academic freedom, do the censorship for the government,” she added.

Professor Duckett said that the level of censorship imposed in China has fluctuated over the years and in recent times has tightened up. “Whether it continues or gets worse and how far it will go, we don’t know. Whether the international academic community need to change their engagement with China will depend partly on what happens next,” she said.

But she added: “Academics have to be alert to the changes that are going on. Already Chinese colleagues are having to be more careful in what they say and do. Chinese academics within China are increasingly likely to be criticised for espousing Western ideas and they may find it more difficult to openly discuss certain topics than in the past.”

“Universities with transnational education activities in China should be alert to the fact that course material may be censored, though this is less of a risk in technical subjects such as engineering,” she added.

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com

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