Cambridge University Press (CUP) has come under fire for putting its business priorities ahead of its academic reputation after it conceded to demands from Chinese authorities to censor hundreds of articles in one of its flagship journals.
In a statement, CUP admitted removing 300 articles on subjects such as 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the Cultural Revolution from its China Quarterly journal on the instruction of Chinese import agencies CEPIEC and CNPIEC.
CUP took the step to remove the articles instead of having the journal shut down, it said.
“We can confirm that we received an instruction from a Chinese import agency to block individual articles from the China Quarterly within China,” CUP’s statement read. “We complied with this initial request to remove individual articles, to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market.”
It continued: “We are aware that other publishers have had entire collections of content blocked in China until they have enabled the import agencies to block access to individual articles. We do not, and will not, proactively censor our content and will only consider blocking individual items (when requested to do so) when the wider availability of content is at risk.”
The press also expressed concern that censorship of academic material in the country is rising.
“We are troubled by the recent increase in requests of this nature, and have already planned meetings to discuss our position with the relevant agencies at the Beijing Book Fair next week,” it said.
In a letter posted on Twitter, China Quarterly’s editor Tim Pringle also hit out at increasing pressure on freedom to publish in the country.
“The China Quarterly would like to express its deep concern and disappointment that over 300 articles and reviews published in the journal have been censored…we note too that this restriction of academic freedom is not an isolated move but an extension of policies that have narrowed the space for public engagement and discussion across Chinese society,” he wrote.
CUP also stressed it would not “change the nature of our publishing to make content acceptable in China” and emphasised it remained “committed to ensuring that access to a wide variety of publishing is possible for academics, researchers, students and teachers in this market”.
However, it has come under fire for agreeing to remove the articles.
Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute and a member of CQ’s Executive Committee, said the publisher had put it business priorities ahead of its reputation by kowtowing to Chinese demands.
Writing on his blog in a personal capacity, he said: “My view is… that CUP’s decision to accede to the demands is a misguided, if understandable, economic decision that does harm to the Press’ reputation and integrity.”
He went on to argue that China’s influence in western academia has increased as a result of the economic power of overseas Chinese students and funding for academic institutions.
“Clearly, there is an uncomfortable tension between economic imperatives and the integrity of the academic profession… This is not the first time Beijing has leveraged the economic power of the Chinese market for political gains," he said. "The fear is that it won’t be the last time that western academia is the target.... Academic institutions in the west need to be vigilant about potential threats to academic freedom. If, for example, the Chinese authorities, through various means of influence, deter western researchers from working on topics Beijing deems ‘sensitive’ it would be enormously damaging for the integrity of western academia.”
Academics have also spoken out in alarm at CUP’s move. In an open letter a group of authors, including Anna Ahlers and Rune Svarverud, wrote: “Individually and together with Chinese colleagues… we are shocked by Cambridge University Press’ decision to comply with requests for censorship. There is no compromise to the idea of a global system of science…Hopefully CUP will reverse its policy and insist on academic freedom even if Chinese authorities do not.”
In October 2015, China was accepted by the International Publishers Association amidst some controversy and split opinions. The IPA rules state all members must sign up in support of the principle of freedom to publish. Last year, the chief executive of Hachette Livre Arnaud Nourry, publicly questioned the decision to allow the Publishers Association of China to become a member of the International Publishers Association (IPA), citing newspaper reports of censorship in the country.
The Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF) begins on Wednesday (23rd August).