Cambridge University Press makes U-turn on China censorship

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The publishing arm of the University of Cambridge has reversed its decision to block access to more than 300 articles in China after it was accused of bowing to pressure from Beijing.

Tim Pringle, the editor of the China Quarterly, Cambridge University Press’s leading China-focused journal, said on Monday that CUP had decided to unblock the pieces after it was attacked over its earlier decision. The articles covered sensitive topics ranging from Tibet to the Tiananmen Square protests. 

“This is a result of both of our representations and the reaction from the international scholarly community,” said Mr Pringle, a lecturer at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “It is not the role of a respected global publishing house like CUP to hinder access to the journals it publishes. This puts academic freedom where it belongs, which is before economic considerations.” 

CUP is the latest in a line of western organisations to face pressure from Chinese authorities to censor its content, as President Xi Jinping’s government intensifies a crackdown on dissent and independent voices that has ensnared journalists, academics and lawyers, among others. 

Mr Pringle said that the decision to reverse course came after a meeting with CUP on Monday morning and global condemnation from, among others, leading Chinese academics and Cambridge alumni. 

“Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based,” the university said. “Therefore, while this temporary decision was taken in order to protect short-term access in China to the vast majority of the Press’s journal articles, the 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.” 

Greg Distelhorst, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of many academics who condemned CUP’s initial acquiescence to Beijing’s request, welcomed the reversal. 

He said it was a “big step in the right direction” but that unblocking articles was not the end of the story. Prof Distelhorst said that CUP needed to develop a policy for handling future requests from the Chinese authorities and that dealing with an ever more censorious Beijing was “not easy”.

Sinologists fear that the request to block China Quarterly articles is the start of a wider campaign by Beijing to curb academic research on China.

The US-based Association for Asian Studies confirmed on Monday that the Chinese authorities had requested that around 100 articles in its Journal of Asian Studies, which is also published by CUP, to be censored in China. CUP has yet to remove any of these articles.

CUP had said on Friday that it had blocked access to more than 300 China Quarterly articles in China after a request from a Chinese government agency. It said that it did so to “stop the Beijing authorities from retaliating by banning its many other publications”, including its best-selling title in China, a children’s English course book entitled Kid’s Box. 

“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 stated at the time. 

It added that it was “troubled by the recent increase in requests of this nature” and would take up the matter with the “relevant agencies”. 

Additional reporting by Helen Warrell in London

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