Cambridge University Press was urged to refuse censorship requests for not only its China Quarterly journal but also any other topics or publications. Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA
Cambridge University Press must reject China’s “disturbing” censorship demands or face a potential boycott of its publications, academics have warned, as a Communist party newspaper attacked critics of Beijing’s information war as “arrogant and absurd”.
In a petition published on Monday, academics from around the world denounced China’s attempts to “export its censorship on topics that do not fit its preferred narrative”.
The appeal came after it emerged that Cambridge University Press (CUP), the world’s oldest publishing house, had complied with a Chinese instruction to block online access to more than 300 politically sensitive articles from its highly respected China Quarterly journal. The blacklisted articles covered topics including Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen massacre and the cult of personality some claim is emerging around China’s president, Xi Jinping.
The petition attacked CUP’s move and urged it “to refuse the censorship request not just for the China Quarterly but on any other topics, journals or publication that have been requested by the Chinese government”.
“If Cambridge University Press acquiesces to the demands of the Chinese government, we as academics and universities reserve the right to pursue other actions including boycotts of Cambridge University Press and related journals,” it added.
The author of the petition, Peking University economics professor Christopher Balding, said he hoped it would serve as an alert to how China had dramatically stepped up its efforts to stifle free thinking since Xi became its top leader in 2012and began a severe crackdown on academia and civil society. “I think this is an increasing problem that really needs to be addressed much more forcefully by the international academic community,” he said.
Balding complained that while it was fashionable for academics and publishers to attack US president Donald Trump, they were far more cautious about criticising Xi’s authoritarian regime for fear of reprisals. “Standing up to the Chinese government involves definite costs. It is not an easy thing to do. There will be potentially punitive measures taken against you. But if it is a principle that is right in the UK and if it is right in the US, then it should also be right in China. And there will be times when you have to accept costs associated with principles.”
Another signatory, Griffith University anthropologist David Schak, said he believed CUP had sullied its centuries-old reputation by bowing to China’s demands. “Cambridge seems to be the one who is now censoring rather than China, even though they are doing it at the request of China … They have soiled their copy book.”
Schak added: “It makes you wonder what they are in the business of doing … I thought university presses were there to publish good research.”
“They are acceding to China whereas [they should have said]: ‘What you do, we can’t stop you from doing that but we are not going to do that ourselves.’ You put the onus entirely back on the Chinese government rather than cooperating with them.”
Suzanne Pepper, a Hong Kong-based writer whose piece on politics in the former colony was among the blocked China Quarterly articles, said she expected censorship from China’s rulers but not from CUP. “It makes them complicit, accomplices in the fine art of censorship, which we are all supposed to deplore,” she said.
Chinese intellectuals also lamented the attempt to limit their access to foreign research. “This whole case makes me feel extremely disappointed,” Li Jingrui, a Chinese novelist, wrote on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. In an oblique reference to China’s one-party state, she added: “I’m left with the feeling that there is absolutely no escape since every single breath on Earth belongs to the king.”
The Global Times, a Communist party-controlled tabloid, rejected criticism of China’s tight internet controls, claiming they were designed to protect the country’s security and were “within the scope of China’s sovereignty”.
“Western institutions have the freedom to choose. If they don’t like the Chinese way, they can stop engaging with us,” the nationalist newspaper argued in an English-language editorial. “If they 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.
“Westerners [who complain about China’s internet controls] are arrogant and absurd,” it added.
An article in the paper’s Chinese-language edition put the same argument in even starker terms, calling opponents of the CUP decision “ridiculous”.
“China is powerful now and is able to protect its own interests,” it said.