Sage’s position on censorship in China

I have had some correspondence with Sage today regarding their position on the censorship of academic publications in China. The publisher provided a clarification of the company’s position in response to this piece I wrote for D&C, which included the line “Sage meanwhile suggested that it would [remove content] if asked”. The line was referencing this report in the Financial Times, written by Ben Bland who has become the leading chronicler of academic censorship in China.

Sage’s clarification of its position is as follows:

As a matter of general principle, SAGE does not block or remove content in response to such a request. It is possible that the Chinese importers or authorities could themselves block access to content. In that case, our preference would be that the entire product is withdrawn as far as that is possible in order to preserve its intellectual integrity. However, in all cases we would first consult with the content owner, society or journal editor as appropriate to ascertain their preferences in the situation.

To also clarify, we have not received a request from the Chinese authorities or other entity to remove or block access to certain documents or content within China. We have however, as have other publishers, been warned that there is a risk that this may happen. If you have become aware of any SAGE content that appears to be blocked in China, we would very much like to receive details of this so that we can investigate the situation.

It is important that publishers are called out for any acts of censorship, but it is equally important to note where they are resisting such pressures. I hope that this clarification is noted therefore, and invite colleagues who do notice any Sage material that appears unavailable in China to contact the publisher as requested.

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The slippery slope of western academic censorship

Every sector of Chinese society has become more constrained under Xi Jinping. The Communist Party, private business, the media and internet, civil society and academia have all been affected by moves to reign in their “degrees of freedom”. For better or worse, this is the prerogative of the Chinese leadership. What I am about to write is thus not about imposing my “western values” on China or dictating how China should be run. Instead, it is about “us”, western societies, institutions, businesses and individuals, and how we conduct ourselves in our interactions with China.

Given the tightening parameters of China’s authoritarian information order, it was only a matter of time until western publishers became a target for exerting greater control. The first target, Cambridge University Press, initially acceded to demands from Chinese authorities to remove content from its website in China, only to reverse track when the backlash from academics threatened lasting reputational damage. Other publishers have followed. Some, like MIT, Oxford and Chicago University Press have said they will not self-censor. Sage meanwhile suggested that it would if asked.

Springer Nature stands out, not only because of its status as one of the world’s largest academic trade presses, but because it actively barred access to some of its content to Chinese internet users. Moreover, Springer Nature has been admirably forthright in defending its decision to do so. Its rationale is that removing a small portion of its catalogue (albeit over 1,000 articles) was a small price to pay for continuing to provide access to material deemed agreeable to the Chinese state.
As an economic argument, it is unassailable. The offending materials come exclusively from journals publishing work on Chinese politics and related fields – a negligible part of Springer Nature’s output. The economic impact is especially minimal when compared to consumption in China itself, where medical, engineering, business and language-learning texts are in high and lucrative demand.

It is when we go beyond purely economic cost-benefit analysis that Springer Nature’s decision raises serious issues. By allowing the Chinese government to decide what is legitimate knowledge the publisher undermines the ethos (freedom of thought and dissemination) and the process (review by peers not political officials) on which academic research is predicated. If that is so, we might question the legitimacy of Springer Nature’s role in the academic sector. How can we trust the integrity of an academic institution (which is what presses are whether they are also commercial enterprises or not) if the ultimate arbiter of academic research is outsourced to an unrelated body whose primary criteria is not academic but political?

When I submit my work to an academic publisher (based on my labour that is paid for by the British taxpayer), I enter an informal contract based on trust that the submission will be stringently but fairly reviewed by academically competent persons who are picked by the publisher and whose identity I do not know. If my work is deemed by blind peer review to make a contribution to knowledge, I trust that the press will publish it in accordance with the sector’s standards in a timely fashion and make it available to all subscribers.

If this process is not adhered to, that betrays not just my trust but that of all academic colleagues. The decision whether an essay is a contribution to knowledge must not be outsourced to a government whose primary concern is political correctness.

This may sound overly abstract given the “negligible” practical impact. The readership of the blocked content in China is likely very small. However, there are practical implications. In some cases, for example where Chinese academics have had their articles removed, it could affect professional advancement. The years of dedication and hard work required to publish academic research could, in theory, be negated as authors are denied promotions or tenure due to the idiosyncrasies of a crude keyword search (the method Springer Nature appears to have employed).

At the present time, the likelihood of such extreme hypothetical scenarios is low. But, my major concern is that we are at the beginning of a long downward spiral. A precedent has been set. What can Springer Nature do but accede to the Chinese authorities’ wishes next time it decides to demand content removed? Today it is “highly sensitive” topics like Tibet and the Cultural Revolution that have been removed; tomorrow it may be slightly less sensitive topics and so on. This is a slippery slope, the end point of which is conforming with the Chinese definition of legitimate knowledge.

As I said, I am not here to tell the Chinese authorities what they should do. But I must state that for academics outside China it is an intolerable intrusion on our fundamental freedoms to have the merits of one’s professional output dictated by a foreign government.

Which brings me to my final point. As China’s global engagement intensifies, as Chinese interests and confidence to assert and protect them increases, it is inevitable that they will come into contact with our own. It is therefore essential that in western academia, and in western societies more generally, we consider our own interests and values. We need to decide what we value and what we are willing to do to protect it. Do we value the freedoms of academic inquiry and expression? Or are those values that we are willing to compromise?

This piece was originally published in Development and Cooperation. 

Dude, where’s my paper?

Back in 2011, weibo was enjoying a moment. Competing platforms were at the height of their popularity and had brought several scandals to light, including attempts to cover up the Wenzhou high speed rail crash. I was fascinated by the potential for weibo to disrupt the authoritarian information order, and wrote about it for the journals New Media & Society and Media, Culture & Society. For the former, in a piece entitled “China’s Weibo: Is faster different?”, I concluded that despite the potential for democratizing information, the state was already proving adept at controlling and harnessing weibo for its own agenda. It doesn’t please me that this proved to be right, as the subsequent crackdown, which neutered weibo’s effectiveness, demonstrated.

In 2011 I was also studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE), and needed to write a teaching-related report. Surveying the literature in China Studies I was struck by the paucity of reflections on teaching practice in our field, and decided to write about incorporating weibo into classes on Chinese politics. This was something I was experimenting with in the classroom at the time, and I imagined that it would stimulate thoughts among academic colleagues about how we might enhance our teaching and increase the knowledge and understanding of students learning about contemporary China. The Editor of the Journal of Chinese Political Science, published by Springer Nature, agreed, using my paper as the stimulus for a special issue dedicated to teaching methods in the China Studies field.

I never imagined that the paper I wrote would end up on a list of articles pulled from publication in China by Springer Nature. When another of my articles, “Chen Suibian: On independence” featured on the list of China Quarterlypublications that the Chinese authorities required Cambridge University Press to remove from their website in China, I could at least perceive the logic to it. Although the paper was a statistical analysis of presidential speeches that sought to contextualise and explain (not endorse!) then-President Chen’s sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, Taiwanese independence is about as sensitive an issue as there is in the PRC.

But what was it about “Teaching Chinese politics: Microblogging and student engagement” that prompted Springer Nature to pull it? Was it the technical discussion of the “pedagogical imperatives [that] increasingly impel university teachers to consider the effectiveness of their teaching methods”? Or the aim to construct a “supportive and collaborative learning environment and demystify China for non-Chinese majors”? I remain mystified myself.

For me personally, removing access to this paper in China is no more than a minor irritation. The paper itself has had negligible impact (a mere 7 cites in the 5 years since publication), and the subsequent decimation of weibo’s popularity and the associated rise of a totally different platform, WeChat, has rendered the practical advice for teachers moot.

However, as I commented in the Financial Times today (FT China correspondent Ben Bland broke the story), there are bigger issues involved. I said, and believe, that it is “a symbol of how unprepared we are in the west for China’s influence expanding outwards.” China sets the rules for what goes on in its territory, and whether we agree with them or not we have to respect that. Censorship by western academic institutions, including trade and university presses, is thus a story about us and our values. China is set on pursuing its own model and it is evident at this point that the west is not going to have much impact on the contours of Chinese norms. The question is whether Chinese norms will start to impact our own behaviours. In fact, there is sufficient evidence that the question is not “whether” but rather “to what extent”.

As China’s global engagement (an unequivocal net positive for the world in my view) broadens and intensifies, and the promise of access to its market exerts an ever greater pull, actions like Springer Nature’s are bound to increase in frequency. Commercial actors of course, from Facebook to Norwegian salmon farmers, work to economic, cost-benefit calculi that do not leave much room for consideration of values. Except, as exemplified by Cambridge University Press’ u-turn, where reputational damage prompts (let’s give benefit of the doubt) a reconsideration of principles. It remains to be seen how Springer Nature will respond, although trade presses have somewhat different considerations than university presses.

Academics are already aware of the inequities of the publishing model in the sector, where companies like Springer Nature and Elsevier have amassed substantial economic gains on the back of free labour. For the weeks of labour I put into writing my banned paper (indeed any paper), and the years of study and training that enabled me to be in position to write it, I didn’t receive a single penny from publishers. Neither have I received any compensation for the time (hundreds of hours at this point) dedicated to peer reviewing submissions to journals, the imprimatur of quality assurance on which academic publications are predicated. Acceptance of this predatory and parasitic relationship is being eroded across the sector, but it, like Chinese censorship, won’t go away any time soon.

And so, in a small token act of resistance against the worst instincts of western capitalism and the Chinese authoritarian information regime, I make all of my published papers freely available to anyone to download at the tabs above.

CUP reverses pledge to remove CQ content in China

Cambridge University Press (CUP) has announced that it is reversing its decision to comply with demands from the Chinese authorities to remove more than 300 articles appearing in the China Quarterly (CQ), the field leading China Studies journal that CUP publishes. CUP apparently took the decision following a weekend of intense criticism from the academic community and other China professionals after the news broke on Friday. In a statement, CUP pledged its support for freedom of expression and argued that it had agreed to the authorities demands in order to protect the accessibility of its other published material in China.

It goes without saying that from the point of view of the integrity of the academic endeavour CUP has made the right decision. While we wait to see how CUP’s business in China may be affected, we can also say it was a necessary decision to control the damage that was being done to the CUP brand, especially among academics who supply much of the labour, a lot of it free of charge, for CUP’s product. Despite receiving praise for reversing course, the esteemed press has suffered a blow to its prestige and diminished trust among many academics.

Questions remain about CUP’s prior handling of Chinese demands and the fate of around 1000 e-books removed from its catalogue in China. CUP’s statement notably falls short of pledging to reject any future ‘requests’ to remove content. Indeed it states that it will consider removing work “when asked to do so” if it endangers “the wider availability of content”. Is that not what has just occurred? The line may be a sop to the Chinese authorities, or on advice of the lawyers, but it leaves an opening for similar episodes to arise in the future.

The prospect of future interventions by the Chinese authorities is high. China is in the midst of a concerted program to enforce ‘discipline’ across diverse sectors, including the media and internet, NGOs and lawyers, business and the Communist Party itself. Chinese academia is under substantial pressure to adopt ‘politically correct’ attitudes in research and teaching. Under these broader conditions, the application of a more systematic means of control of western academic material in China would not be surprising. I suspect that CUP’s volte face, on the heels of a crowing Global Times editorial before the reversal, will lead to an escalation upwards and repercussions for western presses in China. Needless to say, the constrained conditions prevailing in Chinese academia will continue.

The parameters of the China Studies community’s “victory” are thus circumscribed, which is not to diminish the extraordinary efforts of colleagues to push back against CUP’s original decision. CUP has been compelled to stop abetting the censorship efforts of the Chinese state. If the Chinese authorities want to censor material, they have the right and the means to do so, but a western academic institution (in this case a world-renowned press associated with one of the world’s great universities) should not be helping them. The activism of the past 72 hours is a demonstration of the integrity of our field and our willingness to stand up for the values of our profession.

CUP’s reputation has been damaged, but it remains an influential and prestigious press. A CUP book or articles in CUP journals like Journal of Asian Studies or American Political Science Review, remain extremely valuable currency in the profession. The larger question is how the press will fare having crossed the authorities. If the Chinese authorities’ original demand was an exercise in power, the reaction to the reversal demands a robust response. Things could get unpleasant yet.