CUP and China: the view from BIBF

The furore over Cambridge University Press and Chinese censorship has brought to the forefront an issue that has been going on under the radar for years, but which has now been exacerbated by the growth of digital content and a recent tightening of China's policy, I'm told here at the Beijing International Book Fair, where CUP's travails is the subject on everyone's lips.

Hitherto, the issue of books containing information unacceptable to the Chinese authorities has been handled in a way that generally avoids direct confrontation with publishers and authors. In some situations, if print monographs imported into China have fallen foul of the censors, they have been quietly sent back to the publisher as "returns", and China residents trying to order copies have been told that book is "unavailable". Thus an outright ban on titles - and the consequent offence to authors and publishers - has been avoided.

With journals, delivered digitally, there have been occasional issues with individual articles prior to the current showdown with CUP, I'm told. During recent months China's import agencies have begun to take a tougher line, saying they are being put under pressure by their state bosses to do so. The message has apparently been that if offending material from a particular publisher is not withdrawn, all access by that publisher to the China market will cease - a message that does not now bode well for Cambridge University Press.

The step which prompted the current conflict was CUP's initial agreement to withdraw politically sensitive articles from its journal China Quarterly, thus putting itself in the position of offering students in China a censored version of its journal - a move which caused a surge of academic protest, and which CUP has now taken the decision to reverse.

Perhaps a more pragmatic option from a purely business perspective - though it leaves the ethical aspect unaddressed - might have been to supply China with the complete digital version of the journal, but to leave it to the Chinese state as to how much of the material its citizens were able to access from within the country. Clicking on sensitive articles on the BBC's website within China, for example, one is likely to come up against a message "Page empty".

One publisher, who preferred to speak anonymously, told me: "When you come to a country and do business, you know how it works. There is often a halfway point to come to."

There is a lot of sympathy among publishers at Beijing for the position CUP now finds itself in. The International Publishers Association has issued a statement applauding CUP's decision to reverse its own censorship of China Quarterly, and urged the Chinese authorities not to punish the Press for the step - although the fact that neither IPA president Michiel Kolman nor his senior colleagues are attending BIBF this year may have diluted the impact of that here in Beijing.

So the underlying tension of an industry devoted to freedom of expression doing business with China has been ignited - and with some other publishers yet to formalise their own position on how to handle issues of digital content and censorship, the industry is watching the next steps from the Chinese authorities with bated breath.