But the subject has been on everyone’s lips ever since the Cambridge University Press, a prestigious British academic publishing house, announced last week that, at the request of the Chinese authorities, it was blocking online access from within China to over 300 articles in the archives of its China Quarterly journal for Sinologists.
The censored articles, the oldest of which dates back to 2001, address such sensitive subjects as the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, the Cultural Revolution, uprisings, corruption and... the biographies of former leaders.
The CUP defended the decision on the grounds that it was necessary “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators” in China.” In other words, it wanted to ensure that it kept a presence in the Chinese market.
The announcement set off a storm of protests in the university world, with more than 1,300 academics signing a petition. The CUP finally backed down and restored access to all the articles, but the reputation of this venerable British institution, which began publishing in 1534, thirty years before Shakespeare’s birth, has taken a knock.
China wants to rewrite the world
“As academics, we believe in the free and open exchange of ideas and information on all topics not just those we agree with,” said Christopher Balding, an associate professor of business and economics at the HSBC Business School in Shenzhen, who launched the petition. “It is disturbing (…) that China is attempting to export its censorship on topics that do not fit its preferred narrative.”
Another CUP publication, the Journal of Asian Studies , has confirmed that the Chinese authorities also asked it to block access to about 100 articles in its online archives.
“Far from being isolated, these two requests are part of large-scale plan deployed by the Chinese authorities with the aim of rewriting the world in a way that suits them,” said Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia bureau.
“We urge international publishers not to become accomplices to this project, which is likely to cost them their souls and their reputations. As in all cases of blackmail, giving in to threats just encourages the blackmailers to step up their demands.”
Publications that contradict the propaganda
Until now, the regime’s censorship has focused on leading Chinese-language publications targeting the general public. After recently tightening their grip on the national media, now described as the Party’s soldiers, unleashing an offensive against bloggers and citizen-journalists and reinforcing the “Great Firewall,” China’s leaders have news coverage under control.
On the other hand, articles by international academics that are written with great care and are subjected to anonymous peer review before publication pose a threat to the Chinese regime because they provide students, academics and dissidents with an exhaustive store of scholarly knowledge on which to base their work.
It is hard for the Communist Party’s simplistic rhetoric to effectively challenge the conclusions of articles that are regarded as authoritative throughout the world.
A Chinese Wikipedia under construction
As part of its efforts to isolate China from the “unacceptably” libertarian attitudes of international academics, the regime is also developing its own online collaborative encyclopaedia. The original Wikipedia, which has been offering Chinese-language content since 2001, was often censored and was finally blocked for good in 2015 after co-founder Jimmy Wales publicly rejected censorship by Beijing.
Officially launched in 2011, the “Chinese Wikipedia” project is reportedly employing around 20,000 Chinese academics and has already produced more than 900,000 articles. The sole – but significant – difference from the original is that its content is written “with Chinese characteristics” (meaning in line with propaganda) by closely supervised academics.
Ranked 176th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, China is currently detaining more than 100 journalists and cyber-journalists.