Don’t like our rules? Then leave, China newspaper says after journal censored – Reuters

BEIJING (Reuters) – Academics studying China rallied to decry a prominent journal’s blocking of online access to hundreds of scholarly articles after pressure from Beijing, saying the incident could herald heightened restrictions on academic freedom in the country.

Cambridge University Press (CUP) said late last week it had removed some 300 papers and book reviews published in the China Quarterly journal from its website in China following a request from the Chinese government.

Dozens of academics have since spoken out against the move, but a state-backed Chinese tabloid said on Monday that Western institutions could leave if they do not like the “Chinese way”, adding the journal only has a small number of readers anyway.

CUP’s decision was a “big wake-up call” amid two years in which the erosion of academic freedom in China had “escalated alarmingly”, one China-based Western academic said, declining to be named for fear of reprisals from the government.

“The censoring of academic journals, the blocking of databases, threats to block all VPNs, the banning of books, is all adding up to a situation where it will be impossible for academics to do any real research within China,” he said.

Cambridge University Press said in a Friday statement it had complied with the instruction to remove the content so that its other academic and educational materials would remain available in China. It would not proactively censor content, it said.

An open online petition calling for CUP to refuse all censorship requests from the Chinese government published by Christopher Balding, an academic at Peking University’s HSBC School of Business in Shenzhen, had gained over 300 signatories by Monday.

The petition also called for boycotts of the publisher for acquiescing to censorship demands from China’s government.

“It is disturbing to academics and universities worldwide that China is attempting to export its censorship on topics that do not fit its preferred narrative,” the petition said.

“MORAL HAZARD”

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said that the CUP had created a “moral hazard” that would encourage more censorship efforts from China.

“Some of them (academics) are adhering to censorship imposed by an authoritarian government that is in control of the country of study… it raises questions on the credibility of some scholarship,” he said.

The request made of Cambridge University Press “may also be the first step in applying more systematic control of Western academic material in China,” said Jonathan Sullivan, a China specialist at the University of Nottingham in Britain.

In an open letter posted on Medium, James A. Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University, said the decision was “a craven, shameful and destructive concession to (China’s) growing censorship regime” and a violation of academic independence.

“The result is a misleading, neutered simulacrum of China Quarterly for the China market,” he wrote.

However, some scholars argue that concessions to the Chinese government were acceptable when made to maintain relationships with Chinese academics and institutions, saying that more engagement would lead to greater openness in the long run.

CUP said it its Friday statement it would not change the nature of its publishing to make content acceptable in China, and would only consider requests to block individual items when the wider availability of content was at risk.

“The issue of censorship in China and other regions is not a short-term issue and therefore requires a longer-term approach,” it said.

DON’T LIKE IT? LEAVE

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying declined to comment on the request when asked on Monday, referring questions to the “relevant department”. China’s education ministry did not reply to a faxed request for comment.

Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has stepped up censorship and tightened controls on the internet and various aspects of civil society, as well as reasserting Communist Party authority over academia and other institutions.

State-run tabloid the Global Times said in an editorial on Monday that the publisher’s decision would have little impact because the journal’s readership was small, adding that leaving was an option if institutions do not like China’s rules.

“Western institutions have the freedom to choose. If they don’t like the Chinese way, they can stop engaging with us,” the paper, a nationalistic tabloid published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said.

“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.”

Chinese academics also told Reuters they consider growing censorship a risk to the quality of their work.

“As academics there are some things we can’t use,” said one Chinese scholar who asked not to be named. “We can’t access some of the latest research, which has a definite impact.”

Reporting by John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI; Christian Shepherd, Ben Blanchard and Elias Glenn in BEIJING; Editing by Michael Perry and Alex Richardson

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