Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

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.

This episode has shown that western academia, like other sectors across western societies, does not have an informed and systematic policy on how to balance the realities of PRC political norms and the desire to maintain a positive engagement with China. As the connections between China and western academia have intensified, much greater thought has been put into recruiting Chinese students than formulating an appropriate modus operandi for dealing with a government that appears to want western academia to adopt behaviours compatible with its own.

In the past decade the level of interest in China has increased dramatically. Consider, for instance, the number of learned journals focusing on China, and non-area-focused disciplinary journals that now regularly publish research on China. I have been tracking this development closely for the past decade and the increasing attention is substantial. I believe, unequivocally, that this is a positive development for the west and for China. If we are to increase mutual understandings and reduce mutual ignorance as a cause of friction as our engagements intensify, rigorous academic work combined with active external engagement has an important role to play.

Of course, it also means that the Chinese authorities have a harder job controlling the amount and kind of information out there, some of it incompatible with ‘political sensitivities’. There has not yet been a systematic response from China, other than the blunt and ad hoc censorship efforts that have come to light over the weekend. But neither has there been a systematic response in western academia (let alone other sectors where critical reflection is a less inherent quality). As a profession we have given little thought about how to deal with the PRC’s nascent attempt to import Chinese political cultural norms into western classrooms full of Chinese students; or how to uphold academic values in the face of attempts to censor our work.

If nothing else, one hopes that the episode with CUP will alert the profession, and other sectors, to the need to start thinking more deeply about this issue. Positive engagement with China is crucial, but so is a realistic appraisal of our differences and a policy for dealing with them.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan is Director of the China Policy Institute and a member of the China Quarterly’s Executive Committee. He writes here in a personal capacity. He tweets @jonlsullivan.