China Again Expands Censorship to Overseas Academic Publishers

Germany-based Springer Nature blocks access to some 1,000 articles in two of its journals to users in mainland China.

The Berlin headquarters of Springer Nature are shown in an undated photo.

One of the world's largest academic publishers has confirmed that it blocked access to some 1,000 journal articles to Chinese internet users because they contained banned keywords relating to political topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, or the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Springer Nature, which publishes Nature and the Scientific American, blocked the articles, all of which appeared in the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics, the company said in a statement.

"As a global publisher we are required to take account of the local rules and regulations in the countries in which we distribute our published content," the company told the Financial Times newspaper.

"China’s regulatory requirements oblige us to operate our SpringerLink platform in compliance with their local distribution laws [which] only apply to local access to content," it said.

The articles remain accessible to anyone outside of the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall.

"This is not editorial censorship," it said. "In not taking action we ran the very real risk of all of our content being blocked."

In August, the Cambridge University Press (CUP) said it had censored more than 300 articles from the China Quarterly academic journal's China website at the request of media regulators in Beijing, citing similar reasons.

However, it later reversed the decision, and refused a later request from the State Administration of Press and Publications, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) to block around 100 articles published by the Journal of Asian Studies.

Expanding influence

Jonathan Sullivan, director of Nottingham University's China Policy Institute, and the author of one of the articles which have been blocked, told the Financial Times: "It’s a symbol of how unprepared we are in the West for China’s influence expanding outwards."

A request for comment by RFA to Springer Nature went unanswered by the time of writing on Thursday.

Retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang agreed, saying that nowthat China has imposed stringent controls on online content in its own backyard, it is looking to extend censorship overseas.

"They want to make sure that only the content they approve of ever makes it into people's minds," Sun said. "Imposing total control on the internet is no longer enough for them."

"This will affect a lot of students, as well as the editing of teaching materials in mainland Chinese high schools, higher education, and elementary schools," he said. "Of course the academy produces biased output, and its impact is very wide-reaching indeed."

Meanwhile, James Sung, politics lecturer at Hong Kong's City University, told RFA that the ruling Chinese Communist Party's focus on state security and the requirements of the regime have gone up a notch since the 19th party congress last month.

"A lot of university lecturers [in China], especially the younger ones, hold views that are pretty sympathetic to Western ideas of democracy and human rights," Sung said. "The central propaganda ministry and ideological departments are very concerned about this, so they are calling for some curbs."

"We may think that academics and scholars make up a very small segment of the population, and have little to do with ordinary people's lives. But from Beijing's point of view, they are still hugely influential."

"We are now seeing whether overseas publishing houses have enough clout to negotiate with China," Sung said.

'Try not to offend China'

U.S.-based democracy activist Fang Zheng said publishers nowadays fear Beijing's displeasure.

"So they comply with some of the requirements of the Chinese government, for fear of offending them and losing a lot of benefits," Fang said. "Then there are no traces to be found of real history."

"The Chinese government is rich, and they are using their financial clout to influence values around the entire world, which is terrible," he said.

University of Sydney professor Feng Chongyi said overseas governments haven't yet woken up to China's growing political, economic, and cultural influence beyond its borders.

"It's as if there is a global consensus among states that we must ... try not to offend China," Feng said. "This is a two-sided process whereby China has something they want, so overseas governments and the business community slowly weaken their stance and avoid criticism of this authoritarian regime."

"We need some legislation. We can't allow this situation to continue," Feng said.

And in Germany, exiled dissident writer Liao Yiwu said the publishing industry is selling its soul for profit.

"They are giving up their own values of academic freedom and supremacy, and this has shaken the academic world to its foundations," Liao said. "They should display their motto clearly on their logos 'business trumps scholarship: profit trumps academic [freedom]."

Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Wu Yitong for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.