BEIJING — Cambridge University Press reversed course Monday after facing a major backlash from academics over its decision to bow to Chinese government demands to censor an important academic journal.
The British-based publisher announced Friday it had removed 300 articles and book reviews from a version of the China Quarterly website available in China at the request of the government. But on Monday, it rescinded that decision after outrage from the international academic community.
It said the original move had only been a “temporary decision” pending discussion with academic leadership of the University of Cambridge and a scheduled meeting with the Chinese importer in Beijing.
“Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based,” it said in a statement. “Therefore, while this temporary decision was taken in order to protect short-term access in China to the vast majority of the Press’s 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.”
The articles touched on topics deemed sensitive to the Communist Party, including the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, policies toward Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities, Taiwan and the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Tom Pringle, editor of China Quarterly, applauded the decision to reverse course.
“Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he said in a statement published online. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access. The China Quarterly will continue to publish articles that make it through our rigorous double-blind peer review process, regardless of topic or sensitivity.”
The demand to remove the articles came from China’s General Administration of Press and Publication, which warned that if they were not removed the entire website would be made unavailable in China.
The articles would still have been available on a version of China Quarterly accessible outside China. But academics around the world had accused CUP of selling out and becoming complicit in censoring Chinese academic debate and history.
In an open letter published on Medium.com, James A. Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, had called the original decision “a craven, shameful and destructive concession” to the People’s Republic of China’s growing censorship regime.
Millward said the decision to agree to censorship was a “clear violation of academic independence inside and outside China.”
He added it was akin to the New York Times or the Economist publishing versions of their papers inside China omitting content deemed offensive to the Communist Party.
“It is noteworthy that the topics and peoples CUP has so blithely chosen to censor comprise mainly minorities and the politically disadvantaged. Would you censor content about Black Lives Matter, Mexican immigrants or Muslims in your American publication list if Trump asked you to do [so]?” he asked.
In another open letter, MIT assistant professor Greg Distelhorst and Cornell associate professor Jessica Chen Weiss had warned: “The censored history of China will literally bear the seal of Cambridge University.’”
In a tweet, James Leibold, an associate professor at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, whose scholarship about the Xinjiang region was among the censored articles, had called the decision “a shameful act.”
And a petition circulated among academics warning that Cambridge University Press could have faced a boycott if it had continued to acquiesce to the Chinese government’s demands.
“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,” Christopher Balding, an associate professor at Peking University HSBC School of Business in Shenzhen, China, the petition’s originator, wrote.
“If Cambridge University Press acquiesces to the demands of the Chinese government, we as academics and universities reserve the right to pursue other actions including boycotts of Cambridge University Press and related journals.”
The petition requested that only academics and people working in higher education sign, and give their affiliation. It had attracted 635 signatures on Change.org, although it could not be immediately established how many signatories were academics.
Later, Balding welcomed CUP's change of heart, but added: “These are issues Western institutions need to rethink. Just assuming there will be continued liberalization is not an accurate assessment.”
In an editorial, China’s state-run Global Times newspaper also cast the issue as a matter of “principle” and said that if Western institutions can leave if they don’t like it.
“Western institutions have the freedom to choose,” it wrote. “If they don't like the Chinese way, they can stop engaging with us. If they think China's Internet market is so important that they can't miss out, they need to respect Chinese law and adapt to the Chinese way.”
“It doesn't matter if some articles on the China Quarterly disappear on the Chinese Internet. But it is a matter of principle. Time will tell whose principles cater more to this era,” it added.
Experts said China's decision was part of a broader crackdown on free expression in China under President Xi Jinping that has intensified this year as the Communist Party becomes more confident and less inclined to compromise.
In the past, China's system of censorship, nicknamed the Great Firewall of China, has concentrated mainly on Chinese-language material, and has been less preoccupied with blocking English-language material, which is accessed only by a narrow elite. But that may now be changing.
“The China Quarterly is very reputable within academic circles, and it does not promote the positive energy that China wants to see,” said Qiao Mu, a former professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University who was demoted and ultimately left the university after criticizing the government. “Instead, it touches on historical reflection, talks about Cultural Revolution and other errors that China has made in the past. These are things that China does not like and does not want to be discussed.”
Qiao said the initial decision might have seemed “wise” for the publisher as a company, since China is a huge market. But it would have had a negative effect on already limited academic freedom in China.
“For Chinese academics, the effect is mainly psychological,” he said. “They will think more when doing research and impose stricter self-censorship.”
Internet companies have also faced similar dilemmas: Google chose to withdraw from China rather than submit to censorship, and has been displaced here by a censored Chinese search engine, Baidu.com. But LinkedIn has submitted to censorship and continues to operate here. Apple recently complied with a demand from the Chinese government to remove many VPN (virtual private network) applications that Netizens use to access blocked websites, from its App Store in China.
Millward had argued that Cambridge as a whole has more power than it perhaps realized in a battle of wills with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“China is not going to ban everything branded ‘Cambridge’ from the Chinese realm, because to do so would turn this into a big, public issue, and that is precisely what the authorities hope to avoid,” he wrote.
“To do so would, moreover, pit the CCP against a household name that every Chinese person who knows anything about education reveres as one of the world’s oldest and best universities. And Chinese, probably more than anyone else, revere universities, especially name-brand ones.
Cambridge University Press has made available a complete list of the articles that the Chinese government wanted censored here.
Luna Lin contributed to this report.