Cambridge University Press, a leading academic publisher whose China Quarterly is one of the leading English-language social science journals devoted to China has reversed its decision to comply with the demands of China’s censors to block sensitive content.
The university press had initially removed some 300 China Quarterly articles on politically sensitive topics from its website in China on the instruction of the media regulator on penalty of not being allowed to publish at all in China. The press changed its mind following protests, including a petition published by academics from around the world, condemning restrictions on academic freedom of thought.
It was a dilemma that many foreign businesses have faced: the choice between being shut out of the Chinese market for refusing to comply with authorities’ controls of markets or suffer reputational risk outside China by knuckling under. In information markets, the reputational risk of complying with controls on freedom of expression is potentially a higher cost for an academic institution that it would be for a commercial technology or media company. Online content providers,
Chinese and foreign, have been a particular focus of the censors’ attention this year, as online content, previously more laxly regulated than offline media, has been brought under the same control regime as traditional print and broadcast media.
Tech groups and media companies have bowed to government demands to close down hundreds of mobile video platforms and promised to work more closely with state media. Under the new cyber security law that came into force on June 1, only those online content creators who have been issued with a media licence are permitted to upload videos featuring news or political commentary.
This has reinforced Chinese firms’ pre-emptive self-censorship, and more foreign firms to accept specific demands.
Beijing has to tread a careful line with foreign academic publishers. While censoring politically sensitive material is one thing — and social scientists in Chinese universities, once an important source of policy advice to government, have come under greater freedom of expression constraints since President Xi Jinping took over in 2012 — it is another cutting off the country’s scientists and technologists from the latest foreign academic research in those fields.