BEIJING — Scholars are petitioning Cambridge University Press to restore more than 300 politically sensitive articles removed from its website in China after a request from authorities, underscoring concerns about freedom of speech and the Chinese government’s increasing leverage over academic organizations.
Cambridge University Press said Friday that it had complied with a request to block certain articles from “The China Quarterly” within China. They touch on politically sensitive subjects including the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and the status of Tibet.
The furor comes against a tightening of controls by President Xi Jinping’s government over a wide range of society that could feed opposition to the ruling Communist Party, including lawyers who take on sensitive cases, non-governmental organizations and churches.
Academics say that in that time, universities, which have long endured some degree of political interference, have also come under increased supervision, including regular monitoring in classrooms and ideological audits.
Christopher Balding, an associate professor in economics at Peking University HSBC Business School in Shenzhen, said he started the petition to bring pressure on not just CUP, but also universities and academics who interact with China as well as Chinese universities and academics “to stand up to” censorship by the Chinese government.
With Chinese universities increasingly hiring internationally, Beijing is concerned “that these universities are not going to have the ideological adherence to what Beijing wants them to say,” Balding said.
The petition circulating among academics calls on CUP to turn down censorship requests from the Chinese government. It says that academics and universities reserve the right to boycott CUP and related journals if it gives into the Chinese government’s demands.
The petition says the academics believe in the free and open exchange of ideas and information and that it is “disturbing ... that China is attempting to export its censorship on topics that do not fit its preferred narrative.”
“The fundamental driver of this ... is simply to exercise control, to try to impose what they think is the correct way of thinking,” said Balding. He said that scholars in China who really want to read the papers will still be able to access the articles through their networks of colleagues or by skirting the Great Firewall.
However, “the signal is being sent: ‘we don’t want Chinese scholars publishing on this,’” said Balding. “You will mostly likely see a decline in basically any scholarly work on these particular issues.”
By Monday, more than 140 people had signed the 2-day-old petition on change.org.
The Global Times newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party, said in an editorial Monday that China blocks some information on foreign websites that it deems “harmful” to Chinese society, and that CUP has to abide by Chinese law if it sets up a server within China.
If Western institutions “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,” the editorial read.
Chen Daoyin, a political scientist at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said that scholars in China self-censor anyway and don’t work on politically sensitive topics, such as the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
“Most of the young generations in China don’t know about June 4,” Chen said. “And this is what Chinese authorities are doing now, working for the future.”
Other topics addressed in the excised papers include ethnic, religious and political issues in Tibet, political governance in Hong Kong, human rights in China, unrest among the Turkic Muslim Uighur ethnic group in the Xinjiang region and papers on leaders, including communist China’s founder, Mao Zedong.
Cambridge University Press, which is part of the famed British university, said in its Friday statement that it had complied with a request from a Chinese import agency to block individual articles within China to ensure that other materials it publishes would remain available in China.
It added that it was “troubled by the recent increase in requests of this nature” and intended to discuss the issue with Chinese authorities at the Beijing International Book Fair, which takes place this week.