Alarm bells in the ivory tower: Jim Millward on the Cambridge University Press censorship fiasco


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A Georgetown University history professor discusses the response from scholars to a venerated academic press’s decision — later reversed — to censor 300+ articles in China.

On August 17, 2017, the global community of China scholars erupted in outrage over one particular and unusual case of censorship in China — the decision of Cambridge University Press (CUP) to comply with requests to censor 315 articles deemed sensitive by the Chinese government.

Jim Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, who has written many articles on China and the book The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction, was one responder. He quickly published on Medium an “Open Letter to Cambridge University Press about its censorship of the China Quarterly,” which condemned what he called the “craven, shameful and destructive concession to the PRC’s growing censorship regime.”

CUP reversed its decision on August 21, and in the following weeks, other academic publishers and journals revealed that they had received similar requests. The Guardian later noted on September 9 that China’s State Council had indirectly responded to CUP, warning that “all publications imported into China’s market must adhere to Chinese laws and regulations,” and that an additional journal, the American Political Science Review, had also received and rebuffed censorship requests from China.

What does the CUP fiasco mean for censorship and academic freedom in China? Why did CUP yield to the censorship pressure, and how should other academic institutions approach their operations in the country? In many ways, these questions are still unanswered, and Jim sat down with Kaiser and Jeremy to sort through what happened and discuss where it might lead.


Jeremy: Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, by J. M. Coetzee, a South African (now Australian) who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003. The book was written in apartheid-era South Africa, which had a system of censorship that has many features in common with China’s today.

Jim: “Travels with my censor,” a piece by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker, which portrays the censor as a very sympathetic individual. Osnos has been engaged in a back-and-forth with fellow New Yorker staff writer Peter Hessler, who, unlike Osnos, decided to go forward with publishing a censored version of his book for the Chinese market. Osnos explains his reasoning for refusing to publish censored content in China in this New York Times op-ed.

Also, a young Chinese musician and composer named Baishui, who grew up in Sichuan and now lives in the U.S. He has a Chinese folk music background, but also does abstract and electronic music. Find his website here, or find him on Spotify or iTunes.

Kaiser: Porcupine Tree, an English neo-progressive rock band active in the 1990s. Albums to check out: In Absentia and Deadwing, plus two solo albums by the band’s founder, Steve Wilson, The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories and Hand.Cannot.Erase.