Earlier this month, the Cambridge University Press (CUP), publisher of the China Quarterly, one of the most important journals for scholarship on Modern China, announced that it was removing 300 articles from its Chinese website following a request from the Press’s partners in China.
Angry academics rarely make the news, but this particular tempest quickly exploded the tea cup, and even though CUP backtracked a week later, the damage had been done.
Intellectual freedom is the bedrock of the academic exercise, at least in theory. But China in the 21st century has created its own gravitational pull, and access to China — whether to its publishing market, or simply for scholars to do research — is treated by the government as a holy sacrament which can be revoked should the resulting scholarship offend the sensibilities of China’s leaders.
Nor are China’s state interests feeling particularly apologetic for putting CUP in this position.
The Global Times — a State-backed paper whose status as “government mouthpiece” is sometimes overblown, but which in this case is expressing sentiments that seem in lockstep with Party leadership — was blunt in their assessment. “Western institutions have the freedom to choose,” read an editorial published earlier this week in the English-language edition of the newspaper. “If they don’t like the Chinese way, they can stop engaging with us.” The editorial also labelled Westerners who disagree as “arrogant and absurd.”
One of those Westerners is apparently the distinguished historian James Millward, who is no stranger to being on the outside looking in when it comes to the Chinese government’s view of inconvenient scholarship. Professor Millward has been denied visas on several occasions because of his research into China’s borderlands, in particular Xinjiang.
In a strongly worded piece posted before CUP reversed their decision to pull the articles, Professor Millward wrote:
Cambridge University Press’s current concession is akin to the New York Times or The Economist letting the Chinese Communist Party determine what articles go into their publications — something they have never done. It would be unimaginable for these media to instead collaborate with PRC party censors to excise selected content from their daily or weekly editions.
“Cambridge University Press,” Millward writes, “is agreeably donning the hospital gown, untied in the back, baring itself to the Chinese scalpel, and crying ‘cut away!’ But even this metaphor fails, since CUP is actually assisting, like a surgical nurse, in its own evisceration.”
Other organizations joined the fray. The American Association of Asian Studies, which publishes the Journal of Asian Studies released its own statement, saying, “We oppose censorship in any form and continue to promote a free exchange of academic research among scholars around the world.”
There are several theories as to why state organs are taking action now, and in this manner. Obviously, the upcoming 19th Party Congress means a general crackdown on dissent across the board. There may also be interests involved looking to curry favor with a leadership who has clearly sent the message that international scholarship in the humanities is not only irrelevant to their goals for China, but is openly subversive.
In an op-ed for The Guardian, Tim Pringle, Senior Lecturer in Labour, Social Movements and Development and the editor of the China Quarterly, expressed his concerns about the reach of the state in quashing uncomfortable views around the world.
This attempt to deny access might be the result of over-reach by Chinese censorship bodies, such as the recently created General Administration of Press and Publication. But it might also be the outcome of a push by the government to exclude voices from outside the party-led system. The evidence of new regulatory, and apparently ideological, constraints on academic freedom and public engagement in China that have emerged since 2012 suggest that the parlous state of affairs with regard to academic freedom is policy-driven. What is unprecedented is that its reach has now stretched to international institutions.
In many ways, the CCP has never been more secure in its power. Xi is the strongest Chinese leader in decades. At the same time, state actions to curtail the free flow of information inside, and increasingly outside, the country’s borders suggests a grim fixation on maintaining their legitimacy. The Party feels like it is locked in an ideological death roll with Western institutions. It is also beginning to smell blood in the water.
Despite Cambridge University Press’s sudden development of testicular fortitude, the problem is real, and it is growing.
China-based scholar Christopher Balding wrote in Foreign Policy this week:
Western universities’ traditional response to criticisms on China’s restrictions on free inquiry was to claim that they could help liberalize their Chinese counterparts by establishing contact with them. What has happened instead is that they’ve ended up importing Chinese academic censorship into their own institutions. Cambridge University Press censoring on behalf of Beijing is not the first time elite British universities have opted for the bottom line over principle in accepting Chinese censorship contributions.
Inside China, institutions which formerly were ignored, for example programs which enrolled primarily international students, are now finding themselves uncomfortably under the microscope. At least one international program has been asked to submit their teaching materials for review. There were no problems, the director of the program wrote in an email, but it was the first time since the program opened that the university had requested to review their textbooks.
Whether this is a temporary freeze until after the 19th Party Congress or, as Professor Pringle suggests, a new front in the Party’s ideological and information wars with the West, remains to be seen.