Last month, the China Quarterly (CQ), the most reputed academic journal of China studies in the world, published by the Cambridge University Press (CUP), was asked by the Chinese government to block hundreds of articles in China. The censorship was sought with retrospective effect going back to the first issue in 1960. Most of the articles were on Tibet, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square protests, Taiwan independence, Falun Gong, Xinjiang, democracy and human rights.
This was an unprecedented move of academic censorship in China. It is common practice that foreign scholars excise ‘sensitive’ information from their work published in Chinese on the mainland. This protects Chinese citizens associated with a particular piece of research and also guards against the possibility of visa denials for subsequent visits by scholars. However, the CQ censoring raised the stakes as this actively targeted the work of China scholars in English published outside China. The academic community reacted swiftly with stinging criticism. It criticised the CUP for its failure to stand up for academic freedom. This backlash worked and within three days the CQ reinstated the banned content in China.
Defending the ban, an editorial in the Global Times , the mouthpiece of the government, termed the ban a “matter of principle” and asked the “West” to fall in line with Chinese laws to do business with the vast Chinese market. It also stated that academic freedom is a western value.
CQ has over six decades built a reputation for upholding the highest standards of research on China, with defining conversations on Chinese politics, economy and society. It has created a well-informed discourse on China that is itself open to critique and discussion. This censorship would have prevented Chinese scholars from participating in this conversation. Further, CQ is equally valuable to Chinese and non-Chinese scholars. Its censorship was hardly likely to produce an affirming consensus around the Chinese government’s view of its own politics within the Chinese academic community. As an English language journal, its readership in China is limited to the social sciences academics. Therefore, this censorship was not likely to have had a major impact on widespread Chinese efforts to control its popular mediascape. Why, then, did China risk a global political backlash from some of the most well-informed people on China?
It appears that there now is a broad policy of censoring academic debate in China. Following the CQ censorship, Lexis-Nexis, another widely used legal and academic database, revealed that it has been forced to pull two of its databases out of the Chinese market because of censorship. The Journal of Asian Studies , another top journal was also asked to remove content. While censorship is not new in China, its expansion to academic content in English is an alarming sign.
The Chinese panopticon has evolved from party units at the workplace, neighbourhoods, professional organisations, media and academia to the more omnipresent monitoring regime online. China has successfully bent global companies and its own citizens to its will in operationalising its panopticon. The latest casualty in this are the virtual private networks (VPNs) used by Chinese and foreigners on the mainland to access banned content. Apple, the global technology giant, was complicit in this exercise, removing an app last month from its online store that allowed users to access VPNs. While the panopticon has served the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) well, it remains the Achilles heel of the party requiring constant political investment and tight operational control. To deal with this challenge, China is now trying to control the global conversation on the Internet and change the rules of how the Internet functions globally as a discursive space. China’s articulation of ‘Internet sovereignty’ is to territorialise cyberspace giving national governments greater control over access and content. This is philosophically opposed to the vision of the Internet as global space built of and building communities over and above territorial borders.
The attempt to censor the CQ is an outcome of this regressive policy. CQ was sought to be censored because it does not conform to the regime’s attempts to revise Chinese history, purging it of critical reflection on Chinese politics. Chinese universities and research institutes have always functioned under tight political boundaries. It appears that the government wants to narrow these boundaries further by preventing access to critical material on China’s contentious politics over race, sovereignty, political citizenship, and elite politics. The upcoming CCP Congress has also contributed to the attempts to sanitise Chinese cyberspace of any politically subversive content. However, even as that may be a catalyst for the CQ ban, the political provenance of the ban resides in the revisionism of Chinese history to bolster the legitimacy of the party.
The reliance on brute force of the market to censor is likely to create an undercurrent of resistance rather than an informed consensus in favour of the CCP’s vision. China overplayed its hand here and clearly underestimated the resolve of the China scholars’ community in standing by their life’s work. The CUP’s decision to reinstate its content provides a contrast to the capitulation by global corporations such as Apple, to the lure of the Chinese market. Evidently, it is the university and not the market that will produce a resistance to oppression and stand by what is worthy of a fight for all peoples. Precisely why nationalistic regimes the world over today are trying to turn universities into uncritical factories to churn out loyal foot soldiers of the state.
Sonika Gupta is Associate Professor, IIT-Madras China Studies Centre, Chennai