Cambridge University Press has backed down and will immediately re-post journal articles to which it blocked online access in China at the request of the Beijing authorities.
The retraction was announced by Cambridge University, which owns the publisher and the journal, China Quarterly, at the heart of the dispute.
It said the academic leadership of the university had reviewed the publisher’s decision and agreed to reinstate the blocked content with immediate effect to “uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the university’s work is founded”.
Tim Pringle, the editor of China Quarterly, said earlier he had been informed by CUP that the decision was being reversed, and the blocked articles would be reinstated.
China Quarterly is the highly respected journal whose website had been pruned, to comply with Chinese demands, of articles on subjects including the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Cultural Revolution and President Xi Jinping.
The publisher’s change of heart followed growing international protests, including a petition signed by hundreds of academics, and the threat of having its publications boycotted.
The petition on Change.org, launched by Christopher Balding, an American political economist and associate professor at Beijing University, had attracted more than 600 signatures from academics in the US, Europe and the far east.
One of its signatories, Vincent Durand-Dastes, professor of Chinese literature at the Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations in Paris (Inalco) and joint editor of the journal Etudes Chinoises, added a warning against complying with Chinese demands.
“CUP should definitely not accept to devise its own “light” version of China Quarterly or any other publications. If the Chinese government decides to censure China Quarterly or any books or journals published by CUP, let it do it, but do not concur in the fabrication of a ghost journal about contemporary China who won’t talk about such unimportant events as the early 1960s famine, Cultural Revolution, or the conflicts in China’s border area”.
Greg Distelhorst, an academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote one of several highly critical open letters denouncing CUP’s move, said: “I am delighted that Cambridge is listening to the many scholars who spoke up for academic freedom and integrity. However, we need to wait and examine the new policy. Will it be transparent to all readers and contributors, in China and elsewhere?”
James Millward, professor of history at Georgetown University – who said he had periodically been refused entry to China because of pieces he had written – also published an angry open letter to CUP, accusing it of overriding the peer review process and expert editing that had gone into the original publication of the articles, without consulting the authors.
“This comprises a clear violation of academic independence outside as well as inside China,” he said.
Millward contrasted the decision with the stance of the New York Times and the Economist, which are banned in their entirety rather than agreeing to a censored Chinese version.
“Cambridge University Press, on the other hand, is agreeably donning the hospital gown, untied in the back, baring itself to the Chinese scalpel, and crying ’cut away!’ … This is not only disrespectful of CUP’s authors; it demonstrates a repugnant disdain for Chinese readers, for whom CUP apparently deems a watered-down product to be good enough.”