08/24/2017, 14.10
Send to a friend

Beijing tightens ‘noose’ of censorship under the rule of Xi Jinping

by Geremie R. Barmé

The censored articles of the Cambridge University Press (Cup) are not an isolated case. Mao Zedong killed and arrested tens of thousands of intellectuals. CUP perhaps moved by market logic. The absolute power of Xi Jinping.

Canberra (AsiaNews) - Censorship in China has deep historical roots and finds fulfillment in Xi Jinping's current policy. In II BC, the first emperor repressed the intellectuals by killing them and burning their texts. Mao Zedong imprisoned and murdered tens of thousands of 'counterrevolutionary' scholars. After him, Deng Xiaoping also resorted to strong censorship and imprisonment of intellectuals. As seen from Liu Xiaobo's death, Xi Jinping intends to tightens noose even further. These are some of the thesis contained in the article that we present penned by Geremie R. Barmé, historian and world renowned sinologist. On August 18, the Cambridge University Press (Cup) had agreed to Beijing's requests to prevent Chinese readers from accessing controversial articles on the People's Republic of China. Following the controversy triggered by the decision, the prestigious British institution withdrew the measure last August 22nd. The day before, the Global Times newspaper, linked to the Chinese "People's Daily", published an editorial in which it invited the CUP to comply with Chinese laws. Geremie Barmé is a historian, a cultural critic, a film maker, a translator and publisher of web newspapers dealing with Chinese cultural and intellectual history from the early modern period (1600) to the present. He is director of the Australian Center of China in the world and is a professor of Chinese history at Australian National University in Canberra. AsiaNews proposes the full-text of the scholar's reflection, entitled "Burn books, bury the scholars!" published August 22 on China Heritage.

Chinese censorship has come a long way.

During his rule in the second century BCE, the First Emperor 秦始皇 of a unified China, Ying Zheng 嬴政, famously quashed the intellectual diversity of his day by ‘burning the books and burying the scholars’ 焚書坑儒. He not only got rid of troublesome texts, he deleted their authors and potential readers as well.

This infamy would be decried throughout Chinese history until, in May 1958 at the Second Plenary Session of the Eighth Communist Party Congress Central Committee, Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, asked his like-minded comrades:

What’s so impressive about the First Emperor? He only buried 460 scholars alive, while we’ve buried 46,000. When we suppressed counterrevolutionaries, didn’t we also kill some counterrevolutionary intellectuals? I once debated with people in the Democratic Parties: You accuse us of acting like the First Emperor, but you’re wrong; we’ve outdone him 100 times over! You decry us for being dictatorial like the First Emperor; we readily admit it. What’s pathetic is that you sell us short; we always have to fill in the details for you. (General laughter)

秦始皇算什麼?他只坑了四百六十八個儒,我們坑了四萬六千個儒…… 我們與民主人士辯論過,「你罵我們是秦始皇,不對,我們超過了秦始皇一百倍;罵我們是秦始皇,是獨裁者,我們一概承認。可惜的是你們說的不夠,往往要我們加以補充。」(大笑)


Today, the 22nd August 2017, The Guardian reported that Cambridge University Press (CUP), publisher of China Quarterly, one of the most prestigious academic journals on contemporary China, would reinstate content deleted from the online version of the journal available in China. CUP had previously, and surreptitiously, bowed to pressure from Beijing to censor the China Quarterly site available to Chinese university readers ridding it of articles on such nettlesome topics as Tibetan independence, Xinjiang, the 1989 Protest Movement and the June Fourth Massacre. Now, following this unsightly wobble CUP has reaffirmed its commitment to ‘upholding the principle of academic freedom on which the university’s work is founded.’

As a senior academic working on China, and later as founding director of a major China research centre, I’ve sat through my fair share of meetings with academocrats obsessed with international rankings, income streams and their beloved business models.

As I’ve followed the furore surrounding CUP’s self-censorship of China Quarterly (a journal for which I, like so many international colleagues, have acted as a peer reviewer, and one in which I have also published work), I could all but hear the academic number crunchers feverishly working behind the scenes with the lofty CUP and Cambridge executive administrators. My guess is they were busy coming up with a few back-of-the-envelop calculations. The ledger of pluses and minuses probably looked something like this:

  • PLUS: Access to the academic market of China + continued inflows of fee-paying Chinese students to Cambridge + China’s party-state approval + increased across-the-board China sales with the support of an appreciative censoriate…
  • MINUS: Unwelcome international media attention + snowballing academic protests and petitions + pressure from high-ranking peer institutions + public disgust + long-term disaffection of an academic community that provides free services via peer review + loss of existing and potential authors + permanent damage to CUP’s carefully sculpted reputation + unpredictable threats to Cambridge’s position in the world university rankings league tables …

The report in today’s Guardian makes it clear: lofty principles aside, the bottom line is the only defensible line. CUP’s brand, although somewhat tarnished, has been salvaged. Is this what they call a ‘lose-win’ scenario? Having struggled to achieve the status quo ante one can well imagine that the boffins at Cambridge might even have the gall to congratulate themselves. Hélas, la perfide Albion!


Not long after the death of Mao Zedong, a man known as the First Emperor #2, a new journal was founded in Beijing called Reading 讀書. The inaugural issue, which appeared in April 1979, featured an article by Li Honglin 李洪林. It was titled ‘There Are No Forbidden Zones for Readers’ 讀書無禁區. After thirty years of draconian Party censorship, this ushered in a new era in publishing, and reading. However, Li’s essay was published only days after Deng Xiaoping had attacked the threat of ‘Bourgeois Liberalism’ — i.e., free expression and democracy — and announced Four Cardinal Principles that affirmed the absolute authority of the Communist Party over Chinese life. Ever since then the country’s publishers, librarians, writers, book merchants and readers have played cat-and-mouse with a capricious system of censorship.

During periods of relative laxity, all manner of work has been available in China, and generally readers with the requisite linguistic ability, and access, have been able relatively freely to read non-Chinese scholarship and works. There have even been surprises for Chinese-only readers: in the 1980s one old friend, the famous translator Dong Leshan 董樂山, was able to shepherd his translation of George Orwell’s 1984 passed the censors, and in 2015 the former Hungarian dissident Miklós Haraszti’s The Velvet Prison: artists under state socialism was published by the Central Compilation Bureau, an august body that also oversees the translation and dissemination of Marxist-Leninist classics.

But, under the rule of China’s Chairman of Everything, Xi Jinping, a man who has more than a little of Mao about him, the noose has been tightening once more. No books have been burned yet (but who knows how many manuscripts have been relegated by the censors to data death on hard drives or to the desk draw, where they lie in wait for some future relaxation?), although the imprisoned scholar Liu Xiaobo was recently subjected to murder-by-state-neglect.

Yesterday, before CUP banned its ban on China Quarterly, the Global Times 環球時報, a rabble-rousing [demagogico, incendiario] daily that gives unofficial voice to the official line, reported on the kerfuffle and concluded:

It’s no big deal if a few articles in the archive of China Quarterly that only attract a meagre readership are no longer available on the Chinese Internet. In terms of the larger picture, questions of principle on both sides are involved. The real issue is: whose principles better reflect the age in which we live? In this case it’s not true that ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion’. This is about power play. Only time will tell who is in the right. 《中國季刊》的資料庫有幾篇讀者不多的文章,以及那幾篇文章後來在中國互聯網上找不到了,都非大事。然而不錯,往大了說,它們觸及了雙方各自在意的原則。那麼誰的原則更契合這個時代,這不是「公說公有理婆說婆有理」的事,而是力量的博弈。時間會最終裁定誰對誰錯的。

The Communist party-state of China plays a long game, the problem is it only allows its readers to bet on one side.



As this delicious fiasco drew to a close, as if playing a cameo role in a Borgesian short story while still true to form, the censors in Beijing now censored the news that CUP had rejected their censorship. Bravissimo!



Send to a friend
Printable version
See also
Cambridge University Press bows to Beijing and erases over 300 'sensitive' articles
19/08/2017 11:57
Cambridge University Press makes an about-face and says no to Chinese censorship
22/08/2017 14:43
Church leads the way in helping Vietnam cope with its educational emergency
11/03/2016 17:00
Global Times slams “arrogant” Westerners: if you don’t like China’s way, “stop engaging with us”
21/08/2017 15:55
White House to stop Beijing's "imperialist" policy in the South China Sea
24/01/2017 15:55


Subscribe to Asia News updates or change your preferences

Subscribe now
“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”