Saturday, 19 August 2017

Cambridge Stands For Complicity

Chinese authorities have every right to censor content of any sort coming into the country.

Cambridge University Press--the publisher of the academic journal China Quarterly--seems intent on helping them do that.

It’s an interesting and telling story. Sometime in recent weeks, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT, 国家广播电影电视总局), through the division that oversees the printed imports asked (or demanded or requested—it’s not clear which) Cambridge University Press to remove certain articles and book reviews covering sensitive subjects about China appearing in the academic journal China Quarterly—over 300 in all from the website that the latter maintains in China.[1]

The decision to do so, according to an explanation from the Press, allowed Cambridge to “ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market.”

That’s what everyone says.

It’s what Google thought when they entered into an agreement with Beijing about restricting search terms, only to end up, after years of caving into an escalating set of demands from authorities, finally shutting down its search engine here and ceasing most operations.[2]

And it’s what other foreign institutions—from companies to nongovernmental organizations to universities--believe will happen: Cooperate a little; be patient and show good faith; and eventually—eventually—Beijing will come around and let you carry on as if China’s just another country.

But China isn’t another country. It’s run from the top-down, a sort of soft totalitarianism in some respects; markedly better at centralizing and controlling than it had been for centuries; and the culture, ethics, morality and methods of operation in China are different. So many people here in PostModern China don’t compete to cooperate, but to conquer.

Chinese officials expect that when any foreign institution cooperates a little that it’s acknowledging that Beijing has a point—a sharp one—and its power and authority will be obeyed. Authorities here believe that when foreigners comply with demands or cooperate with requests, they understand who holds the whip-hand. Bowing down doesn’t set the stage for true friendship, only deeper frustration—and further demands down the road.

That’s probably why so many foreigners think about changing China. 

The naïve ones believe it can be done, usually by them. They don't last long, dashing away when their flight is called, their contract ends, the last call for alcohol is rung.

The smarter and more experienced recognize that the only way to change China is for China to change itself. 

And China is changing itself, of course—but in a deeply conservative direction, with some screeching that the nation is under siege from foreign forces at the very same time it enjoys more and more success. Democracy is a dead letter.

There’s of course the argument made by Cambridge University Press as well as the editor of China Quarterly (who really may want to think of resigning if he really believes what he’s saying is true) that they do believe in the sanctity of intellectual inquiry but need to stifle it because—well, they have no choice.

But they do have choices. And they’re just as good and maybe a lot better than the one they’ve made. More on that further down.

Those who think that Cambridge University Press made the right move have no way of knowing what’s next. For example, what happens when the next article deemed sensitive by SARFT appears in China Quarterly? The Press assures everyone that they “do not, and will not, proactively censor our content,” but they immediately add that they “will only consider blocking individual items (when requested to do so) when the wider availability of content is at risk.”

In other words, they’ve provided SARFT with a seat on their Board of Directors, and a place on the editorial staff of China Quarterly.

And surely SARFT knows that. There are politics at work here in China, with officials vying to be the hardest of the hardliners, now that that’s the Party line for what seems to be some time to come (barring some upheaval at the 19th Party Congress). SARFT’s move didn’t come out of nowhere; many of these articles have been around for some time. SARFT wants to play an even larger role during President Xi Jinping’s second term, as their moves in recent months have shown, supporting the more general tightening that’s been transpiring.

It’s also possible that SARFT wanted to be part of the recent campaign being pursued by some here to build a social science with Chinese characteristics—that is, by blocking foreign content deemed sensitive, scholars and researchers concentrate on spreading the narrative that Beijing promulgates. As Dr. Mike Gow has pointed out on Twitter, if the new focus is on core socialist values [社会主义核心价值观], then it only makes sense to stiff-arm information from other sources.

In any event, no one gets strong in China these days by being soft. Stifling foreign sources of information and entertainment are an easy way for SARFT to display fealty with the Party leadership and Xi's harder-than-iron line.

And hardly anyone here in China’s provinces will know what happened, or care all that much if they've heard. If there's resistance and anger, it won't be in the streets. More than a few local residents are pleased with the vast improvement in speed and services with the country’s internet, and praise the government’s interest and oversight in containing scams, regulating pornography, and other supervision. If word gets out to the masses what SARFT has done, the narrative will be presented so that many here will applaud and assume it’s all for the good of the nation. There's no hypocrisy locally: Chinese authorities who confronted Cambridge are being straightforward and very smart. It's Others Far Away who are being far less so.

Still it would have been interesting to see Cambridge University Press to take another tack—any other one save the usual obeisance that Beijing has come to expect.

Suppose Cambridge University Press had refused to pull the China Quarterly articles: Would SARFT really have moved to block all of the content Cambridge University Press offer here in China? Or was this bluff—SARFT playing tough, hoping Cambridge would cave so they could then go to work on other publishers? After all, this had to be SARFT and the agents and agencies it works with; this wasn't some monolith with the moniker "China".

Suppose SARFT went ahead and did move to block content after Cambridge refused. What would China’s many professionals and educated have done, especially if the Press had retaliated, sought to ban Chinese scholars (many of whom enjoy extensive State support) from publishing with it? Might other agencies and officials in Beijing, less pleased with the current political situation and eager for some easing, have pushed back at SARFT? Insurrections take many forms, sometimes low-level and from institutions.

After all, what Cambridge has done is to undercut crusaders for change within the system all the more. Imagine how reformers in China feel when they don't even get lip service from foreigners, but see the latter kiss up to Party conservatives here.

And suppose the Press ended its participation in the highly circumscribed Beijing Book Fair, and sought to mobilize academics and officials outside China to express their dismay—and (perish the thought apparently) actually defend and stand with them?

We’ll never know, because none of that had happened. 

Instead, Cambridge University Press defaulted, as so many before them, becoming complicit instead of confrontational. 

And Cambridge won't reap any rewards from this end of the ocean. It won't take long for SARFT to be emboldened and move to strike out at other foreign publishers who will--as others will undoubtedly do at the forthcoming Beijing Book Fair--seek to talk about cooperating with Chinese authorities for some greater, vacuous good, while their own publications and books are taken down from the display racks. Why should SARFT seek to play nice when being nasty got them what they wanted.

Maybe one day it will be possible to know what the world and China will look like when someone says that Beijing has every legal right to censor content and seek to control social space within their national boundaries—but that they, the foreign firm in question, won’t be helping in that effort.

Perhaps one day. But not today. Today, hardliners in Beijing won, as they always do these days, only this time with more help than usual. They may want to send flowers to England to express their appreciation.

[1] Moreover, in another move less well-publicized, the Press removed more than 1,000 e-books from its site which were apparently also deemed too sensitive by Chinese authorities. Little if anything is known about that decision.

[2] It’s bizarre that many people think that Google pulled out of China because of censorship. That’s not what occurred: Google’s search engine was censored from the beginning—by Google when Beijing asked—and authorities here expanded and increased their supervision and control in the ensuing years. Google pulled out of China, of course--but only after years of acquiescence, when censorship, a shrinking market share here and a political shift within the company, became too much. 


  1. So Cambridge University Press eventually stood up to China (or caved under the pressure of protesting academics). I wonder which other journals yield to the demands of SARFT quietly. The reality is that very few academics within China actually read or write on those subject matters that the SARFT deem to be sensitive. Those who do are already based outside of China. At the end of the day the SARFT merely created a Streisand effect. Not that the SARFT care about the negative press though.

  2. I meant to reply to your cogent and entirely correct comment earlier. I think you express the issue very well indeed. I will also note that another feature of this matter is how certain academics came out to support CUP as an institution in the days following their turnaround--almost as if the original decision to knuckle under to SARFT never happened. I suspect that in the months to come, there will be a myth out there that CUP took a courageous stand, with some even thinking that they did so from the outset.