Censorship and China Studies

Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

Academics involved with the China Quarterly (CQ), and colleagues in the China Studies field, are aghast at the demands from the Chinese authorities to remove published academic content from the Cambridge University Press (CUP) website in China. In my opinion, it is a needless overreach of the country’s authoritarian information order. My view is also that CUP’s decision to accede to the demands is a misguided, if understandable, economic decision that does harm to the Press’ reputation and integrity (whether there is any integrity in the business of academic publishing is another story).

As a China Studies academic, I have spent most of my adult life studying Chinese, researching various areas of Chinese politics and society, and teaching western students about China. As China’s global engagement intensifies it is crucial to increase mutual understanding between China and the west, and my personal commitment to this task goes beyond my professional role. Every year I open my large freshman class on contemporary China by congratulating students on their choice to study the country. It is a genuine sentiment; studying China has enriched my intellectual and professional life enormously, and will enrich many of theirs too.

My disappointment with the content ban is thus heartfelt. Yet rather than anger (an emotion that is predicated on higher expectations of the actors involved than I have), I am saddened by the lack of care for intellectual exchange, and the practical and symbolic harm it does to the academic endeavour. My (perhaps naïve) view is that academic research undertaken in the spirit of enhancing knowledge occupies a space above and beyond narrow, instrumental political and business concerns.

Academic exchange between western and Chinese scholars, a significant part of which has taken place on the pages of CQ, is a public good from which the west and China both benefit. The sad thing is that the CQ content ban will deprive China based scholars and students of access to the best research on China (a good proportion of which is published in CQ by Chinese scholars). As China embraces the challenge of a new stage in its economic development, substantial societal change and global engagement, the loss of this resource and space for learning from good ideas and rejecting unsupported ones is an unfortunate loss for all sides.

The politicisation of academic research is anathema to the profession, where above all we value intellectual rigour and objectivity based on application of the scientific method. For the Chinese authorities however, academia is not conceived as a space that is defined by ‘scientific neutrality’ (a concept that is under great pressure in the west too), especially when it comes to the social science and humanities research that CQ specialises in.

The move against CUP/CQ needs to be situated within the context of a broader trend of increasing control of various sectors across society. In Chinese academia individuals face pressures on what they publish and have recently received ‘guidance’ on what they teach. Since non-academics in China rarely encounter, let alone read, academic journals in English, the ban looks like a move to deliberately restrict information that Chinese researchers are potentially exposed to. I find this incongruous and indicative of a lack of trust that is incompatible with the exchanges I have had with Chinese academics over the past twenty years. Chinese academics are sufficiently knowledgeable, professional, and dare I say ‘patriotic’, to intellectually process the work produced by their western counterparts sensibly and critically and to reject ideas they believe are theoretically, methodologically or substantively unsound.

Although the trend appears rather monotonic under President Xi, control of information in China (and indeed constrictions on society more broadly) tends to be cyclical, with varying levels of control across time. On this occasion, however, the implications extend beyond China and into western academia.

This is the first instance where a foreign journal has been subject to this kind of demand from the Chinese authorities. The target, CQ, is the flagship journal in China Studies, and CUP is one of the world’s great academic presses. In going straight to the top of the food chain, one wonders if this is meant as a warning to other presses, publishers and outlets. My major concern is that it sets a precedent for further articles to be blocked or for other China Studies journals to face similar restrictions. No other journals have yet received similar demands, one fears that targeting CQ could be the precursor of a concerted effort to influence work published in the west on topics the Chinese government deems unpalatable. Irrespective of my admiration and goodwill towards China, that would be an intolerable outcome.

CUP, CQ’s long-time publisher, has substantial business interests in China, of which CQ forms a negligible part. The threat of losing access to the Chinese market renders acceding to the Chinese authorities’ wishes an apparently rational economic decision. The background to CUP’s negotiations (supposing there were any) is not known, and thus we can only speculate on the information they entered into their decision-making calculus. We do not know, for instance, the height from which this requirement was issued, the degree to which it represents a systematic demand (as opposed to an over-zealous official), or the specification of sanctions for non-compliance. Neither do we know how hard CUP ‘negotiated’ (the leverage inherent in CUP’s big business in China surely cuts both ways: would Beijing really insist on kicking out the publisher of English language learning, medicine and engineering texts depended on by millions of Chinese students?)

What we can say with confidence is that, clearly, there is an uncomfortable tension between economic imperatives and the integrity of the academic profession. It is a tension that has been debated at length in academia: Indeed the entire academic publishing business model is (with good reason) being questioned. We do not have an answer as yet, but we have further evidence that commercial and academic interests are frequently incompatible.

This is not the first time Beijing has leveraged the economic power of the Chinese market for political gains. The fear is that it won’t be the last time that western academia is the target. China’s influence in western academia has increased as a result of the economic power of overseas Chinese students and funding for academic institutions, including via the conduit of Confucius Institutes. This influence has been leveraged to prevent events on campuses by speakers like the Dalai Lama who are persona non grata in China. Academic institutions in the west need to be vigilant about potential threats to academic freedom. If, for example, the Chinese authorities, through various means of influence, deter western researchers from working on topics Beijing deems ‘sensitive’ it would be enormously damaging for the integrity of western academia. Numerous scholars have been refused visas to China because of their work, a symbolic threat that is particularly pernicious for junior scholars fearful of the effects of doing “sensitive” research.

The one issue that concerns me much less is the future of research published by the CQ. CQ publishes work based on scientific rigour and the contribution to scientific knowledge about China. CQ has never and will never select articles for publication on the basis of any other criteria, not least the question of whether the research is palatable to the Chinese authorities. If some colleagues now decide to submit their work to other outlets that is an individual decision that I respect, but the internal processes, academic standards and integrity of the CQ remains the same as it has for the past 57 years.

Jonathan Sullivan is Director of the China Policy Institute and a member of CQ’s Executive Committee. He writes here in an individual capacity. He tweets @jonlsullivan.

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