Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest publisher, has blocked access to more than 300 articles from its leading China-focused journal at the behest of Beijing censors.
This move is seen as the latest example of a western institution caving in to pressure from the Chinese government and has sparked outrage from academics.
The articles in China Quarterly, which cover a range of topics deemed sensitive by Beijing from human rights to Tibet and Xinjiang, were blocked within China in the past few weeks, according to Tim Pringle, the editor and a lecturer at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
CUP, the publishing arm of the University of Cambridge, said it complied with an instruction from a Chinese import agency to block individual articles in China Quarterly to stop the Beijing authorities from retaliating by banning its many other publications.
“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 said in a statement.
CUP said it was “troubled by the recent increase in requests of this nature” and would take up the matter with the “relevant agencies” at the Beijing Book Fair next week.
Sinologists said they fear the move against China Quarterly is part of a bigger crackdown on academia inside and outside China, as President Xi Jinping steps up a wider campaign against dissent that has also targeted lawyers, journalists and human rights activists.
“The move by CUP was pragmatic,” said Jonathan Sullivan, a member of China Quarterly’s executive committee whose 2010 article on Taiwan independence was among those blocked. “To lose 300 articles is a big blow and we’re against it. But the vast majority of articles published in China Quarterly are still available in China.”
But Mr Sullivan, the director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, conceded that “the decision of any academic outlet to accept this censorship is worrying because it helps magnify Beijing’s message to individual academics”.
Other leading Sinologists attacked CUP, which has singled out China as a key market, for giving in to the Chinese government.
CUP has enjoyed double-digit, year-on-year growth in China for the past five years. The publisher, which reported sales of £306m in the past financial year, said it had sold more than 3m copies of its leading title in China, an English language course book called Kid’s Box China Edition, over the past eight years.
Louisa Lim, author of a well-respected book on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, said on Twitter that CUP’s behaviour was an “appalling” example of “the profit motive being valued over academic freedom”.
James Leibold, a professor of Chinese history at La Trobe University in Melbourne, described CUP’s self-censorship in the face of Beijing’s pressure as a “shameful act”.
He said that CUP was “sending the wrong message to China” by blocking access to the articles as it appeared to “condone the party’s view on a whole range of issues from ethnic minorities to human rights”.
“I think you have to stand up for your principles and if that hurts your economic bottom line, then so be it,” added Professor Leibold, who said that he may be denied future visas to China because of his research on Beijing’s repression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang.
Last month, Apple removed from its Chinese app store applications that enable users to bypass China’s “Great Firewall”, in a move that developers have condemned as “censorship”.