Last week, Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest publisher, admitted it had blocked online access in China to 315 articles from China Quarterly, at the request of Chinese censors. The decision was taken without consulting the journal’s editor, Tim Pringle, who wrote an open letter expressing ‘deep concern and disappointment’ at the decision. The blocked articles are concerned with such politically sensitive subjects as the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang and the Tiananmen Square protests. The demand to remove them came from China’s General Administration of Press and Publications, which threatened to block the entire China Quarterly website if they weren’t.

CUP defended its decision to comply by reiterating its commitment to ‘freedom of thought and expression’ and arguing that the articles’ removal would ‘ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market’. Few scholars were reassured; most regarded it as a capitulation. A petition called for a boycott of CUP if it continued to acquiesce to the censor.

Foreign websites and publications have long been censored in China, by both sophisticated and crude methods. Pages are often torn out of the Economist; at last year’s Beijing Book Fair, officials ripped the page about my book on Xinjiang from the publisher’s catalogue. This has led to self-censorship; it’s routine for foreign writers to remove material from popular books about China to get past the censors. They justify it on the same grounds as CUP: the cuts are an acceptable price for engaging with Chinese audiences.

Censorship in China has never approached a North Korean level; there’s generally been a degree of permissiveness regarding all but the most politically volatile subjects. But since Xi Jinping became president, almost five years ago, there’s been a tightening of control over all forms of expression, especially on social media, in which a number of Western companies have been complicit rather than lose access to the Chinese market. In July, Apple removed applications from its Chinese store that enable users to bypass China’s ‘Great Firewall’ by using proxy sites. Sales of CUP textbooks and language-learning materials in China have had double-digit growth over the last five years. The company is in excellent financial health, however, and the Chinese market, though considerable, is by no means essential to its bottom line.

CUP’s decision seems to have been not only ill-judged, but also inconsistent, given it failed to comply with a similar request to remove 100 articles from the Journal of Asian Studies. CUP announced yesterday that the China Quarterly articles would be reinstated, and that the measure had been only ‘temporary’.

Though already being hailed as a victory, the case is only a skirmish in a much larger academic debate about how best to engage with an authoritarian regime like China. Many British and American universities have been eager to accept Chinese funding for chairs and lectureships, or to partner with Chinese universities, despite their frequent impositions on academic freedom. China has also sought to exert influence on the topics studied by Western academics. Over the last few decades, the Chinese government has been increasingly assertive in its efforts to discourage foreign scholars from researching sensitive issues by denying them visas, to little protest from their universities.