Censoring the Academy: The Cambridge University Press Scandal and Beyond

by Nicholas Loubere

Cambridge University Press self-censorsed to appease the Chinese government
Source: Global Grid for Learning, Flickr

In mid-August, Cambridge University Press (CUP) conceded that it had acted on a request from Chinese authorities to block 315 articles from the Chinese website of The China Quarterly — one of the world’s most prestigious and long-running international China studies journals. CUP’s decision prompted outrage in the academic community and beyond. After a few days of petitions and threats of an academic boycott, CUP reversed its decision and agreed to make all the censored articles available free of charge worldwide. While the scholarly community was successful in pressuring CUP, this incident exposed the serious challenges that face academic publishers operating in the lucrative Chinese market.

In the months after the CUP incident, an avalanche of revelations kept the spotlight on Beijing’s continued attempts to influence academic publishing. In anonymous interviews at the Beijing International Book Fair in late August, other commercial publishers admitted to engaging in self-censorship in order to retain access to the Chinese market. There have also been disturbing revelations that censors have been systematically deleting articles from Chinese studies journals published during the Maoist period that do not toe the current ideological line — effectively censoring the historical record. It was also discovered that LexisNexis, a provider of legal, regulatory, and business information, withdrew content in China at the request of the authorities.

Beijing has responded defiantly to the international condemnation, inviting Western institutions to leave China if they do not wish to follow Chinese rules, and warning that all imported publications ‘must adhere to Chinese laws and regulations’. The Chinese government has also continued to exert pressure on foreign publishers with business interests in the country. In late October, Springer Nature — one of the largest commercial academic publishers in the world — admitted to capitulating to the Chinese censors, blocking access to at least one thousand ‘politically sensitive’ articles on their Chinese website. The publisher defended the decision by saying that only one per cent of total content had been ‘limited’, and claiming that it was necessary to comply in order to avoid wider restrictions. In mid-November, Australian academic Clive Hamilton went public with allegations that Allen & Unwin had withdrawn his forthcoming book Silent Invasion: How China Is Turning Australia into a Puppet State due to fears of defamation litigation. In late November, SAGE Publishing — another massive global commercial publisher — revealed that they were warned by partners in China that they might be required to censor content or be pushed out of the Chinese market.

The increasing assertiveness of Chinese censors and their zeal to push foreign publishers to self-censor in order to access the large Chinese market has resulted in numerous media headlines and petitions by angered academics. However, despite high-profile coverage of the CUP, Springer Nature, and Clive Hamilton incidents in particular, the response from the wider academic community has been largely apathetic. Even in the China studies community, the revelations of censorship have mainly sparked short-term outrage directed at the Chinese government and individual publishers. Thus far, discussions have generally failed to address the more fundamental problems surrounding commercial publishing in academia, and the ways in which the profit motive prompts publishers to acquiesce to the demands of powerful economic actors such as the Chinese state.

Beijing’s efforts to influence foreign academia have not been limited to the publishing sphere. In mid-November, the Ministry of Education instructed over two thousand foreign-funded joint venture universities in China to set up Communist Party units and give the new Party secretaries a role in decision-making through seats on institutional boards. This move comes at the end of a year filled with controversy about Chinese influence in higher education institutions abroad — particularly in Australia, where a major investigative report by the ABC’s Four Corners program and Fairfax accused the Chinese government of organising students to demonstrate on behalf of Chinese state interests and setting up spy networks within Chinese student communities.