SPRINGER NATURE publishes books and prestigious journals, including Nature and Scientific American, and portrays itself as a champion of open access to reports of scientific research. Its website declares that "research is a global endeavor and the free flow of information and ideas is at the heart of advancing discovery." Yet in China, the company has compromised this core principle.
The Financial Times disclosed Wednesday that Springer Nature has blocked access in China to at least 1,000 articles from the websites of the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics, two of its journals, in response to Beijing's censorship demands. The newspaper said all the articles in question "contained keywords deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese authorities," including "Taiwan," "Tibet" and "cultural revolution." According to the FT, a search for "Tibet" on the Journal of Chinese Political Science website in China returned no results, whereas a search outside China showed 66 articles. No articles mentioning the "cultural revolution" could be found on the website in China, the newspaper said, whereas 110 were visible outside.
China's Great Firewall, a gigantic digital cordon, attempts to keep out information that Chinese authorities find potentially threatening. Within China, the Internet is policed by a vast censorship regime backed by restrictive laws on what can be expressed. For foreigners wanting to do business in China with products that disseminate information, this poses a vexing problem: To obey Chinese law means to give in to censorship.
Western companies have responded variously. Apple, which sees China as a vital market, acquiesced to removing the New York Times app from its China App Store at the behest of the authorities. Google tried to work in China for a few years but eventually left. Cambridge University Press at first agreed to remove some 300 sensitive articles in the prestigious China Quarterly journal from its website for a Chinese audience but in August reversed course and refused to give in. Springer Nature said the China blockage was compelled by local laws, that the censored articles were "less than one percent" of its content in mainland China, and that the other 99 percent is "safeguarded for all our customers in China."
It was once thought that Western intellectual and business engagement with China would promote liberalization and was preferable to isolation. But rather than show more tolerance, China is showing less. President Xi Jinping has been on a crusade against free expression, from the press to universities to social media. Foreigners must be careful not to abet this repressive campaign. When it comes to the principle of free expression, there is no way to say that half or even 99 percent is good enough. A journal collection missing pieces of China’s history — the Cultural Revolution, or Tiananmen Square massacre — is absent truth. Springer Nature should reverse its censorship and insist that the Chinese people be exposed fully to the “free flow of information and ideas.”