It’s good news that Cambridge University Press has reversed its decision to censor academic articles in its journal China Quarterly at the behest of the Chinese government.

The university is no doubt right when it says that:

“Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based. Therefore, while this temporary decision was taken in order to protect short-term access in China to the vast majority of the Press’s journal articles, the university’s academic leadership and the Press have agreed to reinstate the blocked content, with immediate effect, so as to uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the university’s work is founded.” 

It’s a pity that this “overriding principle” didn’t seem to occur to them when they made the original decision, however, and pressure from academics, the press and the public had to be applied before they saw sense.

They certainly aren’t alone in making this mistake. Google indulged in a similar, if longer-lasting, error when it set up in China on the condition that it enforced the state’s censorship rules on its search terms – you could search for the massacre in Tiananmen Square or information about democratic, self-determining Taiwan if you wished, but you wouldn’t get any results after clicking the button. The company eventually withdrew from China, not because of this flagrant breach of its official motto, “Don’t be evil”, but because it discovered evidence that Chinese authorities were hacking the gmail accounts of dissidents.

This invites the question: if one of the world’s most prestigious universities and one of the world’s biggest companies are sufficiently cowed that they don’t seem to see any problem in agreeing to play a part in a dictatorship’s regime of censorship and human rights abuses, how many other, smaller players are there out there which are doing the same?

If educational institutions and businesses are willing not just to disregard the nature of China’s government but to agree to be complicit in its regime’s censorship, trading “overriding principles” for money, the same pressure applies to the British state.

The realities of the global economy are undeniable – China is a huge market, and ministers would be foolhardy and self-harming simply to ignore it – but there must be a limit to how low we are willing to bow to the Party bosses in Beijing. Buying and selling goods and services is one thing, but the British government must not allow trade to extend to an exchange of morals. We must neither become a supplier of the tools of repression (as we have wrongly done for Saudi Arabia), nor become a consumer of Chinese snooping and espionage. In terms of the latter, every care must be taken that the Chinese state does not have even the slightest backdoor into our telecoms system or lever of control over our energy infrastructure. It is notably keen to fund and build elements of both.