Five years on from Cambridge University Press’ controversial compliance with a Chinese government request to make more than 300 articles unavailable to Chinese readers, publishers are increasingly self-censoring content on ‘sensitive’ topics. But is the trade-off justified, asks George Cooper
Free and open discussion in the academic press can inform public consciousness and debate. This is why state censorship and the blocking of academic titles during the last few years have been such a concern. So it is deeply concerning that academic titles are self-censoring to avoid subjects the Chinese government has deemed sensitive. Academia should speak truth to power not timidly accept that there are matters they are not permitted to discuss. Self-censorship by publications is not acceptable. We applaud Times Higher Education for this piece. We have included links to seven related items.
There is, however, a more insidious way of censoring ideas that the Chinese government does not want to be circulating freely: remove them at source from the scholarly literature. That is what has been happening in recent years, with books and articles disappearing from certain academic publishers’ online platforms in China if they feature blacklisted keywords, such as Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Falun Gong, Hong Kong.
The issue came to light five years ago, when it emerged in the UK’s national press that Cambridge University Press (CUP) had removed “sensitive” content from its prestigious China studies journal, China Quarterly. Since then, other publishers have faced similar accusations of bowing to pressure from Beijing. Springer Nature has restricted access to more than 1,000 articles, while Taylor & Francis, Sage Publishing and Brill have navigated strict content restrictions.
Although some publishers have found routes to navigate these restrictions without self-censoring their online platforms, others appear to be more deeply enmeshed in China’s censorship apparatus – and in recent years, the access constraints facing so-called controversial papers have gone much further than many believe, straying beyond familiar red-flag topics on an unprecedented scale.