The censorship row involving the world’s oldest publishing house and its most powerful one-party state has exposed the increasingly authoritarian turn China has taken under Xi Jinping, the editor of the journal at the centre of the controversy has said.
Criticism of Cambridge University Press intensified on Sunday over its controversial decision to comply with a Chinese request to block access to more than 300 articles from the China Quarterly, a leading China studies journal, so as to avoid having other publications targeted by Beijing’s censors.
Some vowed to boycott publications produced by CUP – which printed its first book in 1584 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I – until the step was reversed.
Speaking to the Guardian, Tim Pringle, China Quarterly’s editor, said he hoped Chinese authorities would scrap their instruction to block more than 300 articles they deemed objectionable. He also hoped CUP chiefs would use meetings at a Beijing book fair this week to tell the Chinese government that the move represented “a significant step backwards in terms of academic freedom”.
However, Pringle, who is a senior lecturer at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, admitted he was pessimistic about the chances of a Chinese change of heart. “I can’t see this being rolled back anytime soon, although we will lobby for that to happen. I think this is more about the configuration of the current leadership. It is a reflection of the Xi Jinping era. It’s a stronger shade of authoritarian government that is less pragmatic, or certainly appears to be less pragmatic [that the previous administration].”
Pringle described China’s previous leaders, president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao, as authoritarians who had nevertheless been “willing to take on views from an emerging and at time buoyant civil society and to respond pragmatically to some of those views”.
That changed dramatically after Xi became the Communist party’s general secretary, almost five years ago, in November 2012, and instigated a dramatic clampdown on opposition voices. Targets have included academics and journalists who have been ordered to toe the party line; human rights lawyers and their supporters who have been disappeared or jailed; and, now, the world’s oldest publishing house.
Pringle said: “If you look at the foreign NGO law, if you look at the measures taken against various sectors of civil society, the feminist five, labour activists being sentenced and detained starting in December 2015, if you look at the very serious clampdown on lawyers since July 2015, [and] also journalists – this is an excluding of external and critical voices.”
Pringle said he believed China Quarterly had been targeted because it contained the kind of critical material that was no longer welcome under Xi. “We are outside the system … [and] outside party control … If there is one thing worse than an external voice it’s an external voice talking about things you don’t want to hear.”
In a biting open letter Georgetown University’s James Millward accused CUP of showing “a repugnant disdain for Chinese readers” who now only had access to “a misleading, neutered simulacrum” of its journal, shorn of articles about politically-sensitive topics such as Tibet, democracy and the Tiananmen Square massacre .
“Cambridge University Press’s current concession is akin to the New York Times or The Economist letting the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] 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.”
Millward, a specialist in the far-western region of Xinjiang who has been repeatedly denied visas to visit China, noted that those news outlets had refused to produce “incomplete, scissored-up, CCP versions” because of pressure from Beijing. “Cambridge University Press, on the other hand, is agreeably donning the hospital gown, untied in the back, baring itself to the Chinese scalpel, and crying “cut away!”
In an interview, Millward, whose name appears once on the list of censored China Quarterly articles, said he believed CUP had been far too quick to acquiesce to China’s demands. “They should have said, ‘China Quarterly is a package deal: take it or leave it’ and not have worried that CUP products across the board would be banned from China.”
“I really doubt there was some sort of explicit threat that was delivered to them,” Millward added. “I rather think that they were leaping to that conclusion, that if they didn’t comply then they would be retaliated against, and I think that conclusion is a false one.”
“Were we still in the paper-bound journal age, then there would be huge holes in these journals. And for Cambridge just to say, ‘OK, we are just going to cut these out of the virtual version of the journal’ is really kind of appalling.”
The Georgetown scholar said he did not believe China’s leaders had issued a direct order to ban sensitive China Quarterly material. Rather, the instruction was likely to have been given by lower-level officials who were responding to the chilly political climate that has gripped China since Xi took power. Academic institutions and publishers around the world had been “far too reticent about pushing back” against such demands, he added.
Sebastian Veg, a Hong Kong specialist whose work was also on the list of blocked articles, admitted there was “no ideal solution in a case like this, when you have to choose between doing the work of the censors for them or seeing your entire content blocked.
“[However] I don’t think it’s morally acceptable for a University Press to proactively censor its own content to gain access to any market.”
Other foreign publishers and victims of Chinese censorship demands now needed to speak out. “Resisting censorship requires naming and shaming.”