Partnership Between Academic Publisher and Chinese Internet Giant Raises Questions on Academic Freedom

Springer Nature and Tencent Holdings deal leads to censorship of what Beijing calls 'sensitive' topics
December 21, 2017 Updated: December 26, 2017

The partnership between a Chinese internet company and a German publisher of journals mainly focusing on scientific research has raised concerns that the Chinese regime will use the Western company to speak on its behalf, while censoring information it objects to.

On Nov. 4, Tencent Holdings Ltd., a Chinese conglomerate providing internet and telecommunications services, and Springer Nature, a publisher of academic research journals, announced a partnership, in which the two will promote science together and help young scientists, according to the Chinese regime’s mouthpiece newspaper People’s Daily.

The deal has come under much scrutiny from academics who believe the move will stifle academic freedom, given China’s tendency to censor content it disagrees with.

At the partnership signing ceremony, Cheng Wu, vice president of Tencent, said the deal would help young scientists connect with the industry and secure capital funding, as well as support science projects around the world that might need long-term investment.

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This photo shows the logo of Chinese instant messaging platform called WeChat, which was developed by the telecommunications company Tencent, on a mobile device on March 12, 2014. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Springer Nature will also officially become a partner of Tencent’s WE Summit, an annual forum where top scientists and professionals gather to share ideas on science and technology.

The partnership was announced just a few days after Springer said it had blocked access to a portion of its online articles—those with keywords like Taiwan, Tibet, and Cultural Revolution—to comply with demands from the Chinese regime, according to Reuters. Beijing considers these topics to be controversial, as they call into question the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy and reveal its dark history.

While Springer Nature issued a statement saying that less than 1 percent of its articles had been pulled, the Financial Times estimated that more than 1,000 articles from the journal International Politics and the Journal of Chinese Political Science had been blocked.

“An example of Chinese rewards given to companies and individuals for abiding by the Chinese government’s rules is the case of publisher Springer Nature,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) at a hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Dec. 13 in Washington. Smith is co-chair of the commission tasked with monitoring human rights and rule of law in China.

Smith believed that Springer Nature’s decision meant it had to “comply with China’s censorship directives and was later ‘rewarded’ for its censorship by signing a lucrative strategic partnership with the Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings.”

Springer Nature is not the first international publisher to bow to Chinese pressure. In August, Cambridge University Press, a UK publisher, blocked online access in China to some 300 articles—with topics including the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Cultural Revolution, and Tibet—following a request from the Chinese regime, according to Reuters. The UK publisher eventually reversed its position and reposted these articles online after an outcry from the academic community.

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People gather at the Cambridge University Press stand at the Beijing International Book Fair in Beijing, on Aug. 23, 2017. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

The impact of the partnership is not limited to just within China, according to professor Lynette Ong, a China and Asia specialist at the University of Toronto.

“The partnership between a major Chinese media company and Springer will most likely [mean Springer Nature will] have no qualms censoring its content in or outside China, for commercial or political reasons,” said Ong, in an email interview.

She added, “This doesn’t bode well for academic freedom in the U.S., Canada, or elsewhere.”

Tencent has its own agenda for such a partnership, according to a Nov. 6 article on the Hong Kong business news website, run by the Finet Group, an investment holding company that provides financial information services and technology solutions.

“[Springer] Nature can basically hand over the latest and most up-to-date list of email addresses of all the best scientists,” the article stated. In turn, Tencent could use such a list to recruit staff for its own artificial intelligence lab, located in the southern Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen City, and its YouTu Lab, with offices in Shanghai and Hefei, dedicated to image processing, pattern recognition, machine learning, and data mining.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer