Everybody knows that the Chinese authorities have banned the websites of major western media outlets such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Reuters over the past decade.
Perhaps little known is that western academic journals have largely been exempt from official censorship, not least because of the fact that these highly specialized publications usually have a very small readership and are not intended for the general public, and hence not considered an “ideological threat”.
Unfortunately, as President Xi Jinping is further tightening his grip on ideology and freedom of information during the run-up to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), so much for the exemption for western academic journals.
Recently, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television demanded that the Cambridge University Press (CUP) immediately remove more than 300 articles of The China Quarterly and over 100 articles of The Journal of Asian Studies from the China website of the press, and the CUP simply did as it was told right away.
However, the removal of these articles immediately sparked a fierce backlash from the academic sector. Christopher Balding, a professor at the Peking University HSBC Business School, quickly drew up a petition against the removal and publicly called on the CUP to have some “backbone” in the face of Beijing’s crackdown on dissent.
Tim Pringle, chief editor of the China Quarterly, was also dismayed at the CUP’s submissiveness to the Chinese authorities.
He pointed out that what happened to his journal was not an isolated case, but rather, part of a nationwide and systematic campaign mounted by Beijing to tighten its grip on every aspect of mainland society.
Amid mounting pressure from intellectual circles, the CUP eventually changed its mind and restored all the deleted articles to its China website.
In response, the party’s official mouthpiece Global Times ran an article defending the censorship policy, and stressed in no uncertain terms that any western media outlet which wants to enter China’s market must “play by China’s rules”.
Nevertheless, Pringle assured that the China Quarterly would not succumb to any political pressure and would continue to publish articles even if they deal with “sensitive subjects” from Beijing’s perspective.
It is widely believed that the CUP’s disobedience would not go unanswered, and it is just a matter of time before the mainland authorities order the company to shut down the website.
In fact, what happened to the China Quarterly and the Journal of Asian Studies, to a significant extent, indicates the intensification of the political atmosphere across the mainland during the run-up to the 19th National Congress of the CPC.
As a result, in order to toe the party line and play it safe, the mainland authorities are stepping up censorship on foreign media outlets indiscriminately, including highly specialized and prestigious academic publications, the content of which, I believe, is incomprehensible to most mainland officials.
I guess they ordered those articles to be removed just because they happened to spot some “sensitive terms” such as “June 4”, “Tibet”, or “Taiwan” in the content.
However, the overreaction of Chinese officialdom is likely to backfire.
It is because the journal is originally intended for Sinologists only, and remains unknown to the overwhelming majority of the mainland public.
Yet, by banning the publication in such a rough and high-profile manner, what Beijing did was actually draw more public attention to the articles and give extra publicity to its “highly sensitive” content, which would otherwise have gone unnoticed in the mainland.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 25
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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