he international furore that followed Cambridge University Press’s compliance with “an instruction from a Chinese import agency to block individual articles from China Quarterly” made one thing very clear. Academic freedom remains the absolute core concern of scholars all over the world.
This morning I met CUP officials and conveyed the message in forthright terms: the 315 articles that the academic publisher had removed from its internet portals in China should be re-posted as soon as possible and made available free of charge. At no point did China Quarterly, which I edit, consent to removal of the articles and we are delighted at CUP’s reversal of the decision.
The ideological constraints on academic freedom under Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang appear to be policy-driven
As a researcher of labour relations in China for 20 years, I have grown accustomed to the shifting boundaries of what is and is not possible. The first decade of China’s “going out” this century was marked by an increase in public engagement and an expansion of research. Partnerships between Chinese and international universities were forged. The opportunities for creating new knowledge, a lofty-sounding but nevertheless key goal of academic research, blossomed.
For sure, Chinese partners still faced constraints. And non-Chinese academics researching sensitive areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet, human rights, or the tragic end to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 had visas denied and fieldwork hampered or blocked.
But these were nevertheless exciting times to be an academic working on China. They were accompanied by an equally important expansion in environmental movements, labour campaigns and gender equality, and the appearance of a courageous cohort of lawyers prepared to work on human rights cases.
An important outcome of the increased opportunities for academic exchanges was access to information. The numbers of non-Chinese able to access and read Chinese-language materials increased. The numbers of Chinese able to access non-Chinese materials – inevitably, and unfortunately, it is mainly in English – has exploded. This has had a positive impact on Chinese scholarship published in both languages.
China Quarterly has been run from Soas, University of London, for more than 50 years, and I have been fortunate to come into contact with some of the world’s leading academics working on China. In the first years of the new millennium the internet emerged as a powerful research tool, and authoritarian government in China was reconfiguring itself as pragmatic, innovative and open to non-Communist party voices. But this scholarship is now under threat.
The previous era of relative openness was qualified by targeted repression of those who crossed party-defined boundaries, such as Liu Xiaobo, who died in prison earlier this year. He was sentenced for his part in the pro-democracy manifesto Charter 08.
The now re-posted articles had gone through a rigorous “double-blind” peer-review process and represent some of the best contributions to “new knowledge” on China. Some of the authors are globally renowned scholars, others are early-career academics. Access to such research has hugely enriched Chinese scholarship, just as scholarship outside China has been hugely enriched by the response of China’s academic community to this work.
This attempt to deny access might – just might – be the result of over-reach by Chinese censorship bodies such as the recently created General Administration of Press and Publication. But I fear it is the outcome of a much stronger shade of authoritarian government that excludes voices from outside the party-led system. The evidence of new regulatory, and apparently ideological, constraints on academic freedom and public engagement in China that have emerged since 2012 – under the leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang – suggest that the parlous state of affairs with regard to academic freedom is policy-driven. What is unprecedented is that its reach has now stretched to international institutions such as Cambridge University Press.
The key criteria for publication in our journal will not change – academic rigour and contribution to new knowledge. The topics we publish will not take into account the political sensitivities of any government. And as editor, I will work harder than ever to disseminate our articles as widely as possible.
By Tim Pringle
Tim Pringle is a senior lecturer in development studies at Soas, University of London, and editor of China Quarterly