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Cambridge University Press: To Bend The Knee or To Die in China?

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Cambridge University Press: To Bend The Knee or To Die in China?

Cambridge University Press removed content under pressure from Beijing, and then restored it under academic pressure.

Cambridge University Press: To Bend The Knee or To Die in China?
Credit: Flickr/Mario Sánchez Prada

Cambridge University Press (CUP), one of the most prominent publishing houses in the world, is facing a recent reputation crisis and a potential bigger crisis in the future.

On August 18, multiple media outlets reported that CUP pulled over 300 articles and book reviews from the China Quarterly (CQ) — one of the most renowned journals in the China studies field — from CUP’s China site, under the instruction of China’s General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP). The news first went viral as a screenshot of an email from CQ’s editor Tim Pringle was posted on social media. According to Pringle’s email, the censored CQ’s articles — published ranging from the recently back to the 1960s — concerned Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tiananmen Square, the Cultural Revolution, and other sensitive topics in China. In addition, CUP also blocked more than 1,000 e-books on similar topics on its China site. CUP told CQ that they complied with China’s instruction to avoid having the entire site shut down in China.

According to a statement from the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), they have also received notice from CUP that approximately 100 articles from the Journal of Asian Studies, an AAS publication, were required to be removed from CUP’s China site by the Chinese authorities.

CUP made a public confirmation on August 18, admitting its compliance. It explained that CUP is not alone in facing the challenge of censorship in China, it is something all international publishers face.

Regardless, the news immediately triggered a huge wave of criticism on CUP’s “bowing” to China. Christopher Balding, the Professor of Economics at Peking University’s HSBC Business School, even launched a petition to boycott CUP if it acquiesces to China’s censorship, and over 1,200 people had signed the petition by mid-Wednesday.

Under international public and academic pressure, on August 21, CUP decided to restore all the content that had been blocked on its China site. In its second statement, CUP said:

[T]he 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.

Despite that, “CUP’s reputation has been damaged,” as Jonathan Sullivan, Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, noted.

To make matters worse, a bigger crisis for CUP is looming: the Chinese authorities might not easily let CUP go without severe punishment.

As CUP said repeatedly, the choice to block selected content in the first place was made to avoid being shut down completely in China: “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.”

Now that the situation has become an international scandal not only for CUP but for China, Beijing is likely to shut down CUP’s China site to flex its muscles and send a warning to others.

Although CUP is very prominent, most of its readers in China are academic elites. As for the CQ, its influence among the China Studies field is significant but few people outside academic cirlce — especially Chinese people — have heard about it, let alone read it.

So far, none of China’s media has been allowed to report about the incident, except the Global Times, China’s most hawkish national newspaper. As usual, the Global Timesattitude toward CUP did not represent the Chinese government as a whole, but it definitely showed the most aggressive faction’s opinion:

China has blocked some information on foreign websites that it deems harmful to Chinese society. This is for the sake of China’s security and is within the scope of China’s sovereignty… Western institutions have the freedom to choose. 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.