Cambridge University Press retains its honor

Those who seek to rewrite history can only succeed if others conspire with them. Censors prevail only if there are no alternative versions of history with which their sanitized accounts can be compared. A vital and active marketplace of ideas will weed out weak, incomplete and incoherent arguments. Last week, Cambridge University Press appeared to have joined the Chinese government in its efforts to limit intellectual inquiry on topics it deems too sensitive. To its credit, CUP this week reversed course and confirmed its support for academic freedom. The reversal provides an important lesson in dealing with China.

CUP acknowledged last week that 315 articles, some decades old, published in China Quarterly, a leading journal on Chinese studies, would no longer be available in China. The list of banned articles is a Rosetta stone for Chinese government sensitivities, with topics ranging from Tibet, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Cultural Revolution, ethnic tensions in Xinjian and Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy. Banned authors include some of the worlds’ most notable China scholars.

CUP said that it was banning the articles at the request of the Chinese import agency — a government office — but did so to ensure that “other academic and educational material we publish remains available to researchers and educators in this market.” Reportedly, CUP received a similar request to ban over 1,000 e-books.

The Chinese request was not surprising. Beijing has long restricted access to ideas, arguments and news, and the effort to control the marketplace of ideas has intensified since Xi Jinping took the government’s helm five years ago. Beijing has systematically closed the space for public debate, restricting access to information it does not control by cutting off significant portions of the internet and going so far as literally to cut out — with scissors — pages of newspapers that offend government sensibilities.

Xi has called for universities to become “strongholds” of the Communist Party through a more rigorous scrutiny and pruning of ideas. The government is also accused of denying visas to academics that challenge the party line on important issues.

All those actions occur within China, however. More pernicious are attempts to expand government censorship abroad. This tendency is not new. Chinese representatives regularly try to ban content they deem objectionable at book fairs and film festivals around the world. The most notable attempt to censure expression was Beijing’s campaign to protest the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, which included a boycott of the awards ceremony and economic pressure against Norway, which the Chinese government considered complicit in the Nobel decision. While this tendency is long-standing, pressure has intensified as China has become wealthier and better able to punish entities that ignore its wishes.

Reactions to the announcement ranged from dismay to outrage. The editor of China Quarterly posted a letter expressing “deep concern and disappointment,” while other China scholars and experts condemned the decision as “pathetic” and “an extraordinary capitulation,” and excoriated CUP for having “sold its soul for millions of Chinese government dollars.”

As the uproar gained momentum — a number of renowned China scholars called for China Quarterly to change publishers — CUP reassessed its decision. On Monday it announced that the original move was only temporary and that upon further discussion with the academic leadership of Cambridge University and the press, it would reinstate the banned content “so as to uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the university’s work is founded.”

In some ways, Cambridge had no choice. It risked becoming an accessory to the Chinese government’s desire to rewrite history. The move also endangered the social contract that guides such publications: Authors and reviewers work with Cambridge (and other such presses) for free (or almost no money) because they believe that they are participating in and facilitating an intellectual exchange of the highest order. If they suspect that their work will not reach significant parts of their intended audience, then they will not submit articles to China Quarterly or help in the publication process.

If the Chinese government wishes to censor ideas within its borders — a policy we disagree with — that is its right. When other governments and companies facilitate that effort, then they become accomplices, however. When companies that are founded on the principle of the open and vigorous exchange of ideas become complicit, then they have lost their way and need to reconsider not only those decisions, but their very purpose. Sometimes they need to be reminded of that.