What is the University Press’s role in the modern world?
Traditionally it has fulfilled several functions: championing the highest standards of peer-reviewed schoarship globally, providing a platform for works that are of significant interest to scholars but not sufficiently profitable to be of interest to commercial publishers, increasing the prestige and reach of the university brand internationally, and, for some at least, providing a source of revenue for the instituiton.
And it’s reconciling the first and the last of these that is proving so problematic at the moment for Cambridge University, one of the few university presses in the world that is not only not subsidized by its home institution but a significant net contributor to it.
The Chinese administration has demanded that CUP block access to 300+ articles in its journal China Quarterly which it judges to be critical of the regime. And CUP has complied.
In the past this might not have made much real difference to Chinese scholars, since most used VPNs to circumvent the many internet restrictions that constitute the ‘Great Firewall’, but it’s now illegal to operate a VPN without government permission in China, and Apple has recently removed VPN apps from its App Store following pressure from Beijing.
The publishing house is in a difficult position: if it takes the moral high ground, as most academics strongly feel it should, it will suffer commercially, of course, from lost sales in China, one of its key overseas markets. In addition, the subsequent ban would deprive Chinese academics of access to a huge amount of other scholarship. But by agreeing to China’s request, of course, it’s attracted criticisms of ‘craven’ capitulation, and many academics have threatened to boycott it completely.
CUP has said it wants to use the upcoming Beijing Book Fair as an opporunity to argue for a more pragmatic, tolerant position. But somehow that seems unlikely, given that the Chinese regime now effectively has exactly what it wants.
The episode is certainly a crisis of conscience for scholarly publishing, and reveals the deep contradiction at the heart of China’s policy: an enthusiastic and ever-increasing engagement with the world from the inside out, but a shuttering or at least a rigid filtering of engagement from the outside in. The economic and cultural sides of its ambitions seem fundamentally out of whack.
Here’s the statement from China Quarterly‘s editor, Tim Pringle: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-file-manager/file/5997013233df7d9b5152b7f2.