Cambridge UP accepting censorship of academic content in PRC

Ryan Dunch's picture

News has surfaced in the past day that Cambridge University Press has accepted demands from Chinese state agencies to remove published content from its databases available within the People's Republic of China.

The news surfaced yesterday (August 17, 2017) when a letter from China Quarterly editor in chief Tim Pringle, addressed to the journal's editorial board, began circulating on social media. According to that letter, the Press, which has published China Quarterly since 2001*, had removed over 300 articles and book reviews from its China-accessible content in response to a request from the General Administration of Press and Publication of the PRC.

The China Quarterly has now released a public statement about this event (also here). Cambridge University Press has released its own statement confirming the removal of content. It includes the statement that "we complied with this ... request ... to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market."

Cambridge University Press is the publisher of many other high-profile academic titles in Asian Studies, including the Journal of Asian Studies, which it has published since 2007.*

Here is an accessible summary of the story to date, including verbatim copies of Dr. Pringle's original letter and the CUP statement.

*Note: dates based on a check of each journal's front matter in JSTOR/RD

p.s. I missed that the full list of censored China Quarterly content is linked within the CQ statement: see

There's just a possibility some of them might now appear on my reading list for the fall Modern China class ...

This is shocking, even if it is also one more chapter in the sad saga of foreigners submitting to Chinese censorship -- foreign publishers backing down, foreign authors accepting that the “translations” of their books suffer heavy cuts by the Chinese censors, etc. -- just so that they, the foreigners, can make money selling their tame-enough and obedient-enough products on the Chinese market. In the process, the Chinese ways of censorship infect the world.

One of the worst expressions of this trend relates to what Cambridge UP's statement mentions, that China "signed up to" the International Publishers Association last year (actually, it was in 2015). Cambridge UP seems to suggest, naively, that this will change China? in the long run? -- but of course it will be the other way around, since the whole thrust of official Chinese policy and practice is to reject the very principle of freedom of publishing, and to exercise government control and censorship of all publishing. As demonstrated once again, by Cambridge UP's new case.

As I understand it China's state-directed publishers' association was only able to join the IPA after many years of rejection due to objections from other national publishers' associations which pointed out that China does not respect its founding principles, including the principle that a member national publishers' association must be independent of the government.

Which the Chinese association is most certainly not -- as demonstrated, for example, by its recent blatant attempts to meddle in the IPA's Prix Voltaire for the freedom to publish ( -- China’s association it tried to have a nominee deleted from the list! In the typical language of Chinese censors, they expressed indignation at the "unfriendly" act of the nomination! This was revealed by the biggest Swedish daily paper, the Dagens Nyheter, published in Stockholm, on July 20, 2017.

The chair of the IPA Voltaire Prize committee, the Norwegian publisher association’s Kristenn Einarsson, told the newspaper that the prize committee had received the Chinese request and as a result requested the IPA leadership to ensure no-one would interfer in the prize committee’s work, as per its rules. He also noted that the Chinese publisher association’s position in denigrating the nominee in question, (the Swedish Hong-Kong based publisher Gui Minhai currently detained by China), and in demanding his removal from the list, was identical to the position of China’s government and rarely espoused by anyone outside China.

The Chinese association chair, Li Pengyi, realising the image problem created by the exposure of his association’s attempt to dictate to the prize committee, and seeking to keep up the appearances, told the newspaper that the coincidence was a coincidence. (See:;;; sadly the whole incident seems not to have been reported outside Sweden -- other than in Germany:

In the end, the Turkish publisher Turhan Günay, of Cumhuriyet Books, and Evrensel publishing house shared the prize this year.

For his part, the IPA chair, Dutch publisher Michiel Kolman of Elsevier, when interviewed by the Dagens Nyheter, produced an Orwellian (“Ignorance is Strength”) statement, sticking to the fiction that the Chinese association is independent of the government, a condition of membership, and said: “whether they are influenced by their government you’d have to ask them.”

This seems a very much a self-censored statement: Did the censorship machine already win? There is no word yet on whether the IPA has even censured the Chinese member association for demanding the withdrawal of a Prix Voltaire nominee.

The Norwegian publisher association's Einarsson says he will raise the Chinese case at the Frankfurt book fair in October. He compares the Norwegian government's recent abject cave-in to China [], after which Norway was once again allowed the grace of selling salmon to China. But, he said, books are different from fish. And the paper quotes him saying, "Sure, there is an inherent value in spreading literature around the world. But we cannot for that reason give up on the freedom of publishing. These two go together."

We should now ask the Cambridge UP not just if they will reconsider their acquiescence in Chinese censorship just to sell their "tame" articles in China, but also, will they use their influence in their own country's publisher's association to have China's state publishing association censured in the IPA, and expelled from the IPA, for violating the freedom to publish? Otherwise what happens to the principle of freedom to publish?

And as scholars, we can also now ask ourselves, which publishers do we want to work with?

(ps. To be fair to Kolman: in the same interview, he pointed to the several times that the IPA has officially demanded the release of the IPA nominee, Gui Minhai, -- but, to no avail so far: he was kidnapped by secret agents from Thailand in October 2015 and has been held in extralegal detention in China ever since, twice force paraded on Chinese state TV to parrot scripted confessions. On which see my recent article:

Magnus Fiskesjö

A good deal of reaction to and media coverage about this news has appeared over the past day. I won't try to collate all the news stories, which in any case will be easy enough for H-Asia readers (outside of China) to find.

I have also seen a couple of longer commentaries from fellow academics in the China Studies field. James Millward of Georgetown University has posted an Open Letter to Cambridge University Press, drawing on his own experience of censorship and visa denial as a Xinjiang specialist (thanks to Caroline Reeves for the link).

Jonathan Sullivan of the University of Nottingham has published a blog post on the website of the China Policy Institute at his university, focusing on the broader question of censorship and its effect on academic exchange between Chinese and overseas scholars (which Millward also discusses).

Please feel free to bring other statements to the attention of H-Asia readers! See here for instructions on how to post to H-Asia.


People have been raising questions about the implications of the China Quarterly censorship for other academic journals published by Cambridge University Press (and, indeed, for other academic publishers in the China field).

One of those Cambridge UP journals is the Journal of Asian Studies. Its editor, Jeffrey Wasserstrom (@jwassers), sent out the following tweets this morning and has requested that they be shared via H-Asia:

1/2 JAS is a CUP publication but as far as I know access to our content in China has not changed. Tweets aren't ideal for discussion but ...
2/2 (re JAS) CUP is being pressed as it was re CQ, but AAS is determined to prevent the same thing happening to our content (stay tuned)

Cambridge University Press has released a new statement dated August 21 2017 stating that the Press has reinstated the blocked content from the China Quarterly within China. The statement is copied below in full:

The China Quarterly follow-up statement

Following a clear order from its Chinese importer, Cambridge University Press reluctantly took the decision to block, within China, 315 articles in The China Quarterly. This decision was taken as a temporary measure pending discussion with the academic leadership of the University of Cambridge, and pending a scheduled meeting with the Chinese importer in Beijing.
The academic leadership of the University has now reviewed this action in advance of the meeting in China later this week. Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based. Therefore, while this temporary decision was taken in order to protect short-term access in China to the vast majority of the Press’s journal articles, the University’s academic leadership and the Press have agreed to reinstate the blocked content, with immediate effect, so as to uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the University’s work is founded.

It seems that the response from CUP should be to add these articles to Open Access. 

Even if these items cannot be officially accessed through the journal website in China, they will be even more available to scholars elsewhere.

The obvious irony here is of course that in attempting to remove these articles from view, China's censors have simply given them more visibility.

The Association for Asian Studies has now released a statement regarding this matter, with reference in particular to the Journal of Asian Studies, also published by CUP. The text is pasted below; for the links please refer to the web version linked above.

On Friday, August 18, Quartz, the New York Times, and other media outlets reported that Cambridge University Press (CUP) had complied with a demand from the Chinese government that approximately 300 China Quarterly articles concerning sensitive topics (Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, and others) be omitted from search results on CUP’s website when accessed in China. CUP also blocked more than 1,000 e-books on similar topics from the Chinese version of its website. Scholars from around the world protested this action, and earlier today the editor of China Quarterly announced that CUP would restore its full archive to users in China, a decision we fully support.

The Association for Asian Studies has received notice from CUP that a similar request has been made by China’s General Administration of Press and Publications concerning approximately 100 articles from the Journal of Asian Studies, an AAS publication. The officers of the association are extremely concerned about this violation of academic freedom, and the AAS is in ongoing discussions with CUP about how it will respond to the Chinese government. At the present time, no JAS articles have been removed from CUP website search results in China.

We oppose censorship in any form and continue to promote a free exchange of academic research among scholars around the world. We will post further updates on this rapidly changing situation as soon as possible.


Dr. Tim Pringle, the editor of the China Quarterly, has now published an op-ed in The Guardian. He places the current furore in the context of changes in political and academic openness over the past decade, and in particular since President Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012.

Tim Pringle, "China’s Bid to Block My Journal’s Articles is a New Attack on Academic Freedom," The Guardian*, August 21, 2017.

*Note: The Guardian is one of relatively few major newspapers that has not placed its content behind a paywall, so this article should be accessible to H-Asia readers.

NPR just announced that LexisNexis has blocked Chinese access to two of its databases in response to demands to censorship.

It's apparently a much wider problem than just CQ.

So, Cambridge (university, and university press) decided their reputation was more important than making money in China ... but of course just the fact that they DID temporarily bow down to Chinese censorship demands means they already have suffered some damage. 

Whoever at Cambridge wrote that naive sentence I commented on, about the long-term hope that China will improve because they've joined the International Publisher's Assn, will now be regretting that, after their university overrode them. And maybe now, more people outside China can learn from this, and stand up to China's government's attempts to force their censorship regime onto others -- which I think is the really big story, and they are the ones whose reputation should suffer more: Note that they even censored the news about the Cambridge reversal (it's pathetic, cowardly really, the way they are so scared of the news).

Now it remains to see the response to Cambridge by the Chinese authorities, but since their general policy now is to try to censor every written word and to prohibit anything they can't censor, we can expect they will now block everything Cambridge, so as to try to frighten other publishers.  BTW, the Cambridge statement mentions only the articles, no word on the 1000 Cambridge ebooks also reported to be selectively self-censored on Chinese orders.

See too:

Magnus Fiskesjö
Cornell University

On August 18, 2017, the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) was informed that Chinese authorities had requested Cambridge University Press (CUP) remove 94 Journal of Asian Studies (JAS) articles and book reviews from its website in the People’s Republic of China. The AAS and CUP refused that request, and no JAS articles or book reviews have been blocked in China.

A PDF of the complete list that AAS received from CUP of the “sensitive” JAS pieces as identified by Chinese authorities and organized chronologically (oldest to newest) is available at the AAS #AsiaNow blog:


The China Quarterly has published its first issue since the news of the Cambridge University Press censorship case broke in August.

It includes an open-access Foreword by the China Quarterly's editor, Tim Pringle, regarding this case and the journal's editorial policies.