Cambridge University Press (CUP) said on Friday it had censored more than 300 articles from the China Quarterly academic journal's China website at the request of media regulators in Beijing.
"We can confirm that we received an instruction from a Chinese import agency to block individual articles from The China Quarterly within China," the publisher said in a statement in response to leaked information from the journal on social media.
"We complied with this initial request to remove individual articles, to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market," the statement said.
CUP also confirmed earlier reports that the journal had complied with the request from the State Administration of Press and Publications, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) so as to avoid shutdown of the entire Chinese site.
"We are aware that other publishers have had entire collections of content blocked in China until they have enabled the import agencies to block access to individual articles," the statement said, adding that it would consider blocking other items in future should the same threat apply.
The China Quarterly's editor Tim Pringle expressed the journal's "deep concern and disappointment" over the move.
"This restriction of academic freedom is not an isolated move but an extension of policies that have narrowed the space for public engagement and discussion across Chinese society," Pringle wrote in a statement posted to the journal's Twitter account on Friday.
"We will strive to ensure that the articles that the articles published in the journal reach as wide an audience as possible."
An official who answered the phone at SAPPRFT declined to comment. "I don't really know about this," the official said. "I don't know which department issued [the request]."
According to a memo from Pringle to his editorial board that was leaked online and published by the online news site Quartz, the deleted articles dated back to the 1960s and included 'sensitive'
topics like the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
CUP had claimed that other Chinese studies journals had received similar requests, but Pringle wrote in the leaked document that their editors were unaware of them.
U.S.-based author Luo Siling said the move is another example of the long arm of Chinese censorship.
"It's really unthinkable," Luo said. "They are able to control an overseas publishing house."
"I strongly condemn the actions of Cambridge University in this respect."
U.S.-based historian Cheng Yinghong said many Chinese academics frequently cite overseas journals, and full-on censorship of overseas academic content will have a negative impact on their research.
"The West has its own approach, its own standpoint, when it comes to studying China, and I think they should be allowed to read this research," Cheng said.
"As for whether they adopt these [Western] points of view, the Chinese scholars should have their own perspective," he said. "They should be allowed to form it themselves."
New online controls
The takedown comes as the ruling Chinese Communist Party begins to implement tougher online controls ordered by President Xi Jinping in February, removing any foreign content that hasn't been licensed or preapproved by government censors.
Last month, SAPPRFT issued takedown notices last week to two popular multimedia websites targeting young people, AcFun and bilibili, removing a slew of overseas TV shows and video content.
China routinely censors "sensitive" keywords like "June 4, 1989" and "6.4" behind the Great Firewall, although many of the country's 731 million internet users deploy puns and other disguises to mention banned topics.
Typically, searches for blocked content in China return a message apologizing for the nondelivery of search results "in accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and policies," and the deleted China Quarterly articles wouldn't have shown up in search results carried out by users in China.
CUP said it is "troubled" by the recent increase in takedown requests and plans to discuss it with officials at the Beijing Book Fair.
"We will not change the nature of our publishing to make content acceptable in China, and we remain committed to ensuring that access to a wide variety of publishing is possible for academics, researchers, students and teachers in this market," it said.
Previous reports in the British press have indicated that a charity linked to former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was behind a multimillion endowment to Cambridge University for a professorship in Chinese development studies.
"The donation from the Chong Hua Foundation in January 2012 raises serious questions over whether Beijing is buying influence at one of Britain’s most important universities," a 2014 article in The Telegraph reported.
Cambridge University had previously denied that Chong Hua has links to the Chinese government, but new information recently received by The Telegraph indicates that the foundation is controlled by Wen Ruchun, the daughter of China’s former prime minister, the paper reported in 2014.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service.Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.