Cambridge University censored hundreds of academic papers because the Chinese government didn’t like them — then changed its mind three days later

Cambridge University has reversed a decision to censor hundreds of politically sensitive academic papers in China after a huge wave of protests.

Last week, the university’s publishing house took down 315 articles from China Quarterly, a journal covering current affairs in China, after a receiving a “clear order” from the communist government.

Cambridge University Press (CUP), the university’s publishing house, blocked access to articles on a host of sensitive topics.

They include the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Chairman Mao, and Tibet.

M. Taylor Fravel, a China scholar at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), created a graphic showing the balance of content that was scrubbed by CUP:

The publisher initially claimed that it had to remove the articles because it was worried that Chinese authorities would block the entire journal if it didn’t.

It reversed course three days later, claiming that it would reinstate the articles to uphold “the principle of academic freedom.”

In a statement issued last Friday, CUP tried to explain why it had removed the articles, and denied “proactively censoring” its authors.

It said: “We do not, and will not, proactively censor our content and will only consider blocking individual items (when requested to do so) when the wider availability of content is at risk.”

The response did little to placate scholars around the world, who accused CUP of kowtowing to China and sacrificing academic freedom.

Greg Distelhorst, a global economics and management professor at MIT, tweeted:

James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University whose work has caused him trouble with Chinese authorities, wrote that the decision was “a craven, shameful and destructive concession to the PRC’s growing censorship regime.”

“The works CUP is now censoring from China Quarterly were researched and written by scholars from around the world who believed that upon acceptance these works would actually appear in the journal and not be removed willy-nilly,” he added.

Over 1,000 people also signed an online petition, started by Peking University political economics professor Christopher Balding, calling on CUP to reverse its decision. Academics who signed the letter also threatened to boycott CUP and its related journals if CUP proceeded with its decision.

CUP on Monday reversed course. The publishing house confirmed to BI on Tuesday that the previously blocked articles were available again, and that it was “not aware of any restrictions” by Chinese authorities.

In its follow-up statement, the publisher insisted that the decision was temporary and “taken in order to protect short-term access in China to the vast majority of the Press’s journal articles.”

Tim Pringle, China Quarterly’s editor, told the BBC that CUP’s initial decision showed “a deeper underlying issue around the contradiction between academic freedom and the allure of the Chinese market.”

In response to the CUP decision and ensuing protests, the Chinese state-sanctioned Global Times newspaper wrote in an editorial on Sunday: “Western institutions have the freedom to choose. If they don’t like the Chinese way, they can stop engaging with us. If they think China’s Internet market is so important that they can’t miss out, they need to respect Chinese law and adapt to the Chinese way.”

CUP is not the only foreign publisher to face such demands by the Chinese government. The English-language English-language websites of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Reuters – among many others – are all blocked in China.