November 16, 2017
Stand up to intimidation from China? These English-language publishers are all like, nah
by Ian Dreiblatt
We’ve written at length recently about some possible contradictions between two classic liberal values: free speech, and ever-expanding markets. We’ve also written about the especially troubling ways those contradictions have played out in the People’s Republic of China, particularly under the rule of current president (and Politburo legacy hire) Xi Jinping. Two major cases in point have been heaved into headlines this week.
The first concerns Springer Nature, a concern that publishes a wide variety of periodicals—including dentist’s-office favorites like Nature and Scientific American, and stuff everybody reads all the time like Molecular Neurodegeneration and, uh, Drugs—and a huge list of scholarly books. A majority of the company is owned by Holtzbrinck, making it a cousin to well-known literary presses like FSG (huggable), Picador (spicy!), and Henry Holt (not without a certain twinkle).
As Ben Bland reported recently for the Financial Times, the company has been busy implementing diktats from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), blocking access in China to more than a thousand of the articles it publishes. The censored articles had originally appeared in two Springer publications, the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics. While Bland writes that all of them “contained keywords deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese authorities, including ‘Taiwan,’ ‘Tibet’ and ‘Cultural Revolution,’” he adds that some of them contained nothing the CCP would likely object to, and seemed to have been “innocently swept up.”
In a statement, the publisher insisted Beijing has “no influence from an editorial perspective on the content we publish” (which, ha ha, define “publish,” friends) and that it remains “committed to safeguarding the integrity of the scientific record” (by preventing people from accessing it? is this a riddle?).
Meanwhile, in Australia, the last nation on earth where disparaging the boot remains a bootable offense, a prominent public intellectual has had his book postponed—indefinitely, he claims—merely out of the anxiety that it could provoke a negative response from China. For CNNMoney, Ben Westcott reports that Clive Hamilton’s book Silent Invasion: How China is Turning Australia into a Puppet State was pulled for fear of a “vexatious defamation action” against its woulda-been publisher Allen and Unwin. (Sidenote: according to scientific studies not available to readers in China, “vexatious defamation action” is the fanciest possible way to say “they’ll sue us.”) Hamilton says an unnamed A&U employee told him the postponement would likely become permanent. Apparently tired of unwinning, Hamilton has reclaimed the rights, and will presumably seek anther publisher.
(If you haven’t heard of Clive Hamilton, by the way, there’s a good chance you’re not Australian — he’s the author of more than fifteen books, including Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, and Growth Fetish, a title that has presumably disappointed a great many sixteen-year-olds. He is the founder of the Australia Institute, was very nearly elected to Parliament, and, perhaps surprisingly, supports internet censorship for Australia.)
When the CCP held its Nineteenth National Congress last month, it rewrote its constitution to include Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (which, reportedly, sounds zippier in the original). Journalists around the world promptly began shitting themselves in a frantic effort to describe the (ahem, nearly) unrivaled power this gave the Chinese president.
I think it’s safe to say we’ve all got no fucking idea what’s going on anymore, but things sure are shaping into one bumpy ride.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.