X-ing Out Xinjiang

A China studies scholar says a journal editor censored him by striking out a section of a book review critical of the Chinese government's policies in Xinjiang. The editor denies it was censorship.

May 20, 2019
 
Courtesy of Timothy Grose

In yet another case of alleged censorship in the China studies field, a scholar says a journal editor censored his book review by requesting the deletion of an opening paragraph that contextualized the book in light of Chinese Communist Party policy toward members of the Uighur ethnic minority group in the region of Xinjiang. Human rights groups estimate that China has detained as many as one million Uighurs in camps as part of a mass “re-education” drive aimed at forcing the assimilation of Uighurs and other Muslim-majority groups.

The scholar, Timothy Grose, an assistant professor of China studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, says the requested deletions -- and the refusal over multiple months to publish the piece after he did not consent to them -- constitute an "open-and-shut" case of censorship, and he has noted that the editor in chief of the journal is on record defending Chinese government policy in Xinjiang.

The journal’s editor in chief, Han Xiaorong, a professor and head of the department of Chinese culture at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says he did suggest the deletions but denies that his proposed edits constituted censorship. Han said the review was not published because miscommunications between him and the book review editor led to the commission of two reviews, including the review in question, that were not “directly relevant” to the journal’s theme.

The case of alleged censorship involves a new journal, China and Asia: A Journal in Historical Studies, published by Brill, a Dutch publisher of more than 270 journals. Grose said he was commissioned by the journal to write a review of the book Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang (University of Chicago Press), an ethnographic study of members of the majority Han ethnic group who have settled in Xinjiang, written by the anthropologist Tom Cliff.

Grose opened his review of Cliff’s book with a paragraph discussing the detention of Uighurs in "concentration re-education centers" because, he wrote, he believed Cliff’s argument "afforded much-needed clarity to the confounding situation in the region." He submitted the review Nov. 7. The next day he received an email from the book review editor saying the editorial staff had suggested a "minor change": the deletion of the first paragraph, as well as two subsequent sentences (see image of the deletions above).

“I was more confused than upset,” Grose wrote in an account he published last week on the Los Angeles Review of Books’ website ChinaChannel.org. “I spent the evening and next morning trying to make sense of this editorial decision, before responding in an email asking for clarification and expressing my concerns over censorship. The book review editor forwarded my note to the editor in chief of the journal, Han Xiaorong.”

“After waiting over a month for the editor’s response, to no avail, I sent a follow-up email in mid-December. The book review editor responded within a week and expressed serious doubt over the possibility of publishing the piece. He did not offer specific reasons behind the decision.” After three more months of silence, Grose wrote, he took to Twitter on April 5 to offer the review to another outlet. The Asia Dialogue, an online magazine published by the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute, published it three days later.

The editor in chief of the journal, Han, acknowledged in a written response to Grose’s article that he suggested the deletions, but he disputed that the suggestions constituted censorship.

“I did suggest the removal of the first paragraph as well as the first two sentences of the second paragraph of Tim’s review, because I believed the views expressed about the situation in Xinjiang were primarily of a political nature and were about a current event that was still developing,” Han wrote. “It is typical for an academic book review to start with the book rather than a political message. If censorship was my aim, I would have rejected the review immediately without revisions, because the book under review and the rest of the book review were also critical of China’s practices.”

Han also cited “miscommunications between our book review editor and me” in saying that the journal acquired two reviews for its inaugural issue “that were not directly relevant to our journal’s central theme, which is China’s historical relations with other Asian countries. This is why I did not include these two reviews in our first issue … My plan was to try to find more suitable journals for these two reviews, and, if that failed, we would consider publishing them in future issues.” Han apologized for what he said in hindsight was poor communication between Grose, the book review editor and him.

As Grose has noted, Han recently wrote an op-ed in which he defended Chinese Communist Party policies in Xinjiang on counterterrorism-related grounds. Han wrote that foreign media, government officials and scholars who criticize the Chinese government for its policies in Xinjiang “have never attempted to understand why Xinjiang is taking these unique anti-terrorism measures; they also almost never mention the positive outcomes brought about by these anti-terrorism measures.”

“In Xinjiang and all other regions under the threat of terrorism, the government and the people must face the difficult decision: whether the personal freedom of a few should be traded for everyone’s right to survive,” Han wrote (translated from Chinese). “The most basic human right is to live in an environment in which one does not have to fear for the life and safety of oneself and one’s family and friends. In order to protect this right, sometimes it is necessary to forfeit some secondary rights. In 2001, after Sept. 11, the United States immediately strengthened airport security check measures and established the Department of Homeland Security, which had the right to restrict the freedoms of certain people; this is a similar decision."

Han said via email the question of what his views on Xinjiang are and the question of whether he censored Grose are two separate issues -- and that "to make false connections between the two is a form of censorship in itself." He asked, "To trace meticulously what someone has written or spoken in order to prove that someone's guilt[y] is the worst form of censorship, isn't it?"

“My views on Xinjiang may differ from those of Tim,” Han wrote in his published response to Grose’s allegations, “but that does not mean the suggested revision of his book review and the delay of its publication were due to censorship.”

Grose said he thinks this is an "open-and shut case" of an editor deliberately censoring his review. “He [Han] incriminates himself in his response to my rendering of the events that transpired by saying, yes, initially I did delete the entire first paragraph and the first few sentences of the second paragraph because I thought they were political,” Grose said. “To me, that is the epitome of censorship when you find something political and you don’t agree with those politics and you decide not to let an individual express those ideas.”

“To me it wasn’t political at all,” Grose continued. “I’m not just a China scholar. My expertise is Xinjiang and Uighurs, and Tom Cliff’s argument is very, very relevant to what’s going on in Xinjiang. It’s about how the CCP formulates its policy, how it privileges the comforts of one group of people over the other and also how it forms Xinjiang’s relationship with the rest of China and how it continues to make this an ‘other’ place compared to the rest of China.”

Kevin Carrico, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Monash University, in Australia, said it seemed to him an “extremely clear-cut case of censorship … Han claims that the reference to Xinjiang’s concentration camps at the beginning of Grose’s review is 'political' and thus somehow inappropriate,” Carrico wrote in a Listserv post. “But as someone who writes a fair amount of book reviews, I’ve never encountered an editor who was resistant to linking a book review to pressing current affairs. This applies even to journals focused on history. Books are, after all, read in the context of the world as it is today, and I find it frankly impossible to read Cliff’s book without thinking about the ongoing tragedy in Xinjiang.”

Grose criticized the publisher, Brill, for the slowness of its response, and said the last communication he received from Brill prior to publication of his LA Review of Books piece last week was on April 22.

Jasmin Lange, chief of publishing at Brill, said the publisher had reached out to both Grose and Han for their views on the situation and would assess the information provided. "It was certainly not a matter of not taking this seriously; we simply had to gather all the information,” Lange said.

Lange said Brill first learned about the case on April 7 through Grose’s posting on social media and immediately contacted him. "One day later Timothy Grose published his book review elsewhere, which meant that we could not intervene in the publishing process anymore," she said over email. "During the last few weeks, we were in a process of gathering information. We have first received a report and copies of emails from Timothy. Yesterday [Thursday] we have also received a report from the editor as well as all email correspondence between him and the author. We will review this information and investigate whether our publication ethics have been breach[ed]. If our publication ethics have been breached, we will not hesitate to take any necessary action. Commercial considerations do not play a role in such an evaluation."

This is the second case involving a Brill journal and alleged censorship in the last month; in April Brill announced that it would end its partnership with a Beijing-based press after scholars reported that an entire article was removed from a Brill-affiliated journal at the request of Chinese censors. In 2017, Cambridge University Press briefly blocked access in mainland China to more than 1,000 journal articles in the prestigious journal The China Quarterly before reversing course and restoring access to the articles, which dealt with sensitive topics in China like the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Tiananmen Square and the pro-democracy movement, and Xinjiang.

The German publisher Springer Nature has stood by its decision to block access to certain journal articles in China, saying it must comply with local rules and regulations in the countries in which it publishes. More recently it came to light that Chinese importers had stopped buying whole journals published by the English publisher Taylor & Francis due to content the government found objectionable.

Jonathan Sullivan, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham and editor of the Asia Dialogue, which ultimately published Grose's piece, said he has had his papers banned in China in the Cambridge University Press and Springer censorship incidents. "I regret that some of my work on China is not available in China, but I would be much more concerned if my work had (hypothetically) been rejected from these journals because a (hypothetical) publisher or editor deemed it to be politically expedient [with regard to] China to do so," Sullivan said.

"China is using subtle and not so subtle, direct and indirect methods to influence the information environment outside of China, but more insidious still is the intervention of actors making decisions for fear of upsetting China," Sullivan said via email. "This kind of self-censoring is a risk to the academic study of China, and there is survey evidence to show that it is emerging in China scholars’ thinking. Therefore, wherever we see attempts to curtail our freedom of inquiry and dissemination we need to push back, because we cannot allow modification of our work (by ourselves or by others) out of political expediency to become normalized."

Sullivan continued, "Tim was reviewing a book about Xinjiang and thus it made sense to provide contextualization in the opening paragraph. The unavoidable context for any contemporary piece of work about Xinjiang is the current government’s policy of systematically repressing Uighur Muslims. There is no room for doubt on this issue -- no one, not even those who seek to justify the policy on counterterror grounds, denies what is happening on the ground in Xinjiang. I have seen the (I think editor’s) argument that invoking the current situation was not relevant to the book review, given that the book does not itself deal centrally with the current policies.

"This is a spurious argument -- and especially untenable for a book review editor, because contextualization is part and parcel of reviewing. I don’t know the editor and don’t have any comment on their motivations. But when I heard about Tim’s experience, I had no qualms about publishing it on the Asia Dialogue digital platform at the University of Nottingham, which under my editorship routinely publishes pieces on issues the Chinese government deems ‘sensitive’ or unpalatable."

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