Chinese intellectuals and bloggers have celebrated Cambridge University’s decision to push back against Beijing’s draconian information controls, but Chinese Communist Party censors reacted almost immediately to prevent word of the snub spreading in mainland China.
Cambridge University Press (CUP), the world’s oldest publishing house, had faced a ferocious public backlash following its admission last week that it had complied with a Chinese order to block access to more than 300 politically sensitive articles published in its journal The China Quarterly.
Amid intensifying criticism and calls for an academic boycott, Cambridge University — which owns the publishing house — on Monday announced it had reversed the decision, which it said been taken “reluctantly” as a result of a “clear order” from China.
The blocked articles, which covered thorny topics, such as the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and the Cultural Revolution, were made accessible to readers in mainland China free of charge.
Cambridge University also announced its rejection of China’s censorship demands in a Chinese-language post on its official account on Weibo.
“Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based,” it said.
The university’s change of heart drew praise from Chinese intellectuals.
“It is a triumph of morality,” said Zhang Lifan (章立凡), a Beijing-based historian. “[The decision] should be welcomed, if Cambridge sticks to it.”
Fudan University historian Sun Peidong (孫培棟) credited the international academic outcry for Cambridge’s volte-face.
“Western intellectuals … collectively made it reversible,” she wrote on Weibo.
Chinese Internet users also praised Cambridge’s support for academic freedom, with its Weibo post drawing more than 2,600 shares and 525 overwhelmingly approving comments.
“Cambridge University has backbone — academic freedom cannot be threatened by political persecution,” one wrote.
“What a brilliant decision! Well done Cambridge!” another said.
However, less than 12 hours after the Weibo statement was posted — at about 12:20am in China — it had disappeared, apparently scrubbed from the Chinese Internet by censors.
Those trying to access the post instead found the message: “Sorry, this article has been deleted.”
Qiao Mu (喬木), a former Beijing Foreign Studies University professor who was forced out of the university as a result of his outspokenness on political topics, said such censorship was part of everyday life in one-party China: “Censors treat everyone equally under an authoritarian system such as this.”
A question about the censorship row was also expunged from a transcript of a daily Chinese foreign ministry press briefing on Monday.
According to the Wall Street Journal, ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying (華春瑩) declined to comment, claiming the controversy was not a diplomatic issue.
However, neither the question nor Hua’s answer found its way into the official record, which is routinely shorn of topics considered inconvenient by Chinese authorities.
Last month, after similar questions about dying Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) were also removed from the ministry’s transcript, a spokesperson told foreign journalists: “If you can decide how to write [your reports], then I think as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we can decide what goes online or not.”
Speaking on Monday, China Quarterly editor Tim Pringle said he was delighted by Cambridge’s reversal.
“Any publishing house of CUP’s renown has no business taking down articles” at the behest of authorities from any country, he said.
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