CUP and the censorship of historical truth


A recent debate between the publishing company Cambridge University Press (CUP) and the Chinese government over the censorship of academic journals has just come to an end. (Creative Commons/V Snow)

A recent debate between the publishing company Cambridge University Press (CUP) and the Chinese government over the censorship of academic journals has just come to an end. China generally attempts to maintain a strict censorship on what academic topics its students and citizens have access to, which is why CUP removed 300 articles about historical events that were sensitive to the Communist Party from the China Quarterly website, according to a Washington Post report. However, the publishing company restored the articles a few days later by request of the international academic community. This move by CUP is, in fact, an integral step in countering political censorship and informing the Chinese public.

The articles in question contained topics such as the harsh treatment of Tibetan and Uighur minorities and the Taiwanese, suppression of pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and critical views of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of 1966-1967. Despite the unflattering views of the Communist Party that accompany these historical moments, they are of extreme historical and cultural significance and must be studied with this in mind. Regrettable events like these can be studied and learned from to prevent future catastrophes, but only if it is part of the knowledge base available to Chinese citizens.

The issue is that the Chinese government threatened to remove the entire China Quarterly website if CUP refused to take down the articles, while the academic community criticized the publishing company for complying with these demands. This begs the question of what responsibilities does a publishing company have in a debate on political censorship.

“It is not the role of respected global publishing houses… to hinder such access (to high quality published materials),” Tom Pringle, editor of the China Quarterly, said in an online statement. The only role of CUP is to share the available knowledge and research with the public, while it is the role of websites like the Quarterly and political officials to ensure it reaches them.

Especially for Cambridge University Press, which claims to be the world’s oldest publishing house, this decision to fight academic censorship is of great significance. As the publishing company said in a statement, “Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based.” Its decisions directly reflect on its associated university, which is one of the oldest and most respected universities in the world.

“The censored history of China will literally bear the seal of Cambridge University,” MIT assistant professor Greg Distelhorst and Cornell associate professor Jessica Chen Weiss said. Therefore, the university’s publishing house is a crucial party in fighting academic censorship and making high quality research available to all.

However, the most important members of this debate thus far have been the members of the international academic community who have gone to great lengths to discourage CUP from participating in the Chinese government’s censorship. Academics responded with a petition of 635 signatures threatening to boycott the publishing house if they did not restore their articles in the China Quarterly.

This issue is not significant to China alone. Many countries have a tendency to avoid acknowledging shameful parts of their histories, including the United States. As James A. Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, argued, the American equivalent to this issue would be if the New York Times or the Economist decided to publish their papers without content that would be offensive to the American government and public. This would include information about Mexican immigrants, Muslims and movements such as Black Lives Matter. Ignoring this part of a nation’s history does a disservice to its citizens they cannot acknowledge the truths of their past and correct them. Censorship is always an alarming issue in politics, but the censorship of historical truths is even more concerning.

Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at

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