Burn the Books, Bury the Scholars!

Over the past four days, Cambridge University Press (CUP), a venerable academic publishing house that operates under the aegis of the even more venerable Cambridge University, has been the focus of international news reports. This has followed from the revelation that CUP had acceded to requests from the Beijing authorities to block readers in China from access to controversial articles about the People’s Republic published in China Quarterly, a leading journal on contemporary Chinese affairs.

For reports on this piquant contretemps in The Guardian, and two open letters registering protest, see:

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
22 August 2017

Burn the Books, Bury the Scholars!

Geremie R. Barmé*


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)


Mao Zedong and Ying Zheng, First Emperor of the Qin dynasty.

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.

The first page of the manuscript of Li Honglin’s essay.

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 desk draws 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 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!


* A shorter version of this essay was written for The Lowy Interpreter at the suggestion of Rory Metcalf. This longer version was reprinted by ChinaFile.

Further Reading: