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China & the West: the New Knowledge War

BLOG - 15 December 2017

This summer, Cambridge University Press yielded to Chinese censorship, before eventually reversing its stance. More recently, Springer Nature, a leading German publishing group, also bowed to pressure from Chinese authorities and blocked access to over 1,000 articles.

Every summer since 2003, China attracts the attention of universities and governments around the world thanks to the ranking published by Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University. At the onset of the 21st century, the fact that the first global norm to be applied to universities worldwide came from China demonstrates that globalization’s focal point relocated from West to East. Two events that almost went unnoticed in the French press last summer and this fall should however spark new ranking ideas for scholars and defenders of democracy all over the world… A ranking of countries where academic freedom is guaranteed by public authorities! Regarding this criteria, no doubt China would have room for improvement…

On August 18th, the academic world learned with dismay that Cambridge University Press (CUP), the world’s oldest publishing house, granted letters patent in 1534, under Henry VIII, had decided to prevent 315 articles of the journal The China Quarterly, established in 1960, from being accessed on the Internet from China. Following a request formulated by Chinese authorities, CUP took this ruhed decision in order to safeguard its other activities in the country, while asserting its intention to discuss the matter with competent Chinese authorities at Beijing’s International Book Fair the following week. Did the publishing house mean to protect its other scientific publications from censorship, furthering its commitment to guarantee wide access to academic knowledge, or was it rather out of an intent to ensure that its commercial products, namely regarding English learning, did not suffer the important losses that being deprived of the Chinese middle class would entail?

Arbitrary censorship

The numerous articles published in international media accusing Cambridge of losing, or even worse, of "selling its soul", associated with demonstrations of hostility towards this dubious decision from the world’s third publishing house - according to the Shanghai ranking! – encouraged them to reconsider as early as August 21st. A scholars’ petition on, criticizing China’s willingness to "export its censorship", gathered over a thousand signatures in just a few days, mainly from Asia - sometimes China, which requires bravery - , but also from the United States and Europe.

In spite of Reuters’ requests, neither the Ministry of Education, nor that of Foreign Affairs, nor any Chinese authority have accepted to comment on this matter. The list of articles censored upon Chinese authorities’ appeal, without any information on where the decree precisely came from, is a testimony of current praxis. Censorship was applied to expected topics, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square events, the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, Tibet, Taïwan, the Xinjiang province… As revealed by a Chinese PhD student in Oxford, censored articles were selected on the basis of taboo keywords appearing in titles and abstracts, which led to the censorship of an article defending Mao Zedong, when other articles criticizing him were not detected.

Can this censorship be explained by the administration’s aim to further President Xi Jinping’s interests, a few months before the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which he - rightly - hoped at the time would renew his mandate for five additional years? Or was it rather a way for Chinese authorities to display their scheme towards the main vehicles of a Western vision of the world, which they oppose and condemn?

As this incident does not stand alone, the latter seems like the most plausible explanation. Beginning of November, Springer Nature, an important academic German publishing group, removed access to over 1,000 articles in China, in response to Beijing’s demand. Yet again, the censored articles seem to have been selected according to the same pattern as for the Cambridge University Press articles. Indeed, the Financial Times showed that all these articles contained politically sensitive keywords, such as "Tibet" or "Tiananmen", but that not all threatened or even opposed the Chinese Communist Party.
While no other academic publishing group has succumbed to pressure from Chinese authorities yet - or at least not that we know of - a few others, such as Sage publishing group, have nonetheless been warned by Chinese partners they might have to remove content deemed harmful to the Communist party in the near future. To be continued...

These cases must be taken very seriously, as China’s aggressive soft power poses an important challenge to liberal democracies. Defied from within through a populist wave, unprecedented since the 1930s, from the heart of Europe to the United States, challenged in their economic hegemony and in matters of innovation, they have to face the emergence of alternative authoritarian models, which intend to export if not impose their own vision of the world. In this regard, higher education is an ideal vantage point, as much as glaciers for climate change.

As soon as he came to power in 2012, Xi Jinping pinpointed Chinese universities and he has not diverted attention since. Because ideologists close to the president assign the Soviet Union’s dissolution to an intellectual collapse. Because students were at the origin of Tiananmen protests in 1989, which will soon celebrate their 30th anniversary. Because the Chinese leadership learned its lesson by observing the "Arab spring" events, which were generated by the middle class, in particular by students, and widely propagated through social media - yet another target of Chinese censorship. What else is there to expect in terms of freedom from an autocratic leader who let a jailed Nobel Peace Prize Laureate trespass and detain his widow?

Universities must remain democracies’ institutions able to foster critical thinking. This  cannot be deviated from and we have no right to let any authority deprive them of this raison d’être.

Translated and published by kind permission of Le Point (published on September 5th)


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