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China to Limit Access to Largest Academic Database 

The China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), the largest academic database in China, has notified several universities and research institutes in the U.S., Taiwan and Hong Kong that their access will be limited starting April 1.

CNKI was established in 1999 and contains Chinese government reports, academic journals and papers published since 1915, covering many fields such as politics, economy, humanities, social sciences and technology. For researchers unable to go to Chinese libraries to look up materials in person, the resources provided by CNKI are particularly important.

“Research libraries all over the US (beyond?) are receiving these notices,” tweeted Sheena Chestnut Greitens, an associate professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where she directs the Asia Policy Program. “CNKI is a pretty essential research tool for scholars studying China, so it’s worrisome. (Hoping the suspension is temporary, but I have my doubts.)”

Mark Witzke, senior analyst at the Rhodium Group, told VOA Mandarin that while he doesn't personally access CNKI directly, a lot of the research he reads and figures that he references are sourced from CNKI.

“It’s getting harder and harder to access reliable data on China, and this is just the latest blow,” Witzke said.

“Without reliable data and research, it’s hard to get a real understanding of what is going on in the country. This empowers those who instead rely on rumors and motivated reasoning,” he said. Motivated reasoning occurs when people actively look for reasons to justify why they’re right and reject facts and research that don’t fit their beliefs.

Questions remain

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, told VOA Mandarin, “We know too little to be sure what we are dealing with. CNKI has not clearly stated what will no longer be made available and if some or all of them will become permanently unavailable.”

Tsang said that presumably, non-China-based researchers can still access the data in China by visiting Chinese institutions.

“But this will mean being vetted by Chinese institutions first, in the process of being accepted as an academic visitor to a Chinese institution, and all Chinese institutions are, by order of Xi Jinping, subject to the leadership of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party],” he added.

According to Nikkei Asia, the affected libraries include at least a dozen research institutions such as the library of the City University of Hong Kong and the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy of the Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

VOA contacted CNKI, the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy of the Academia Sinica, and the City University of Hong Kong, but did not receive replies by the time of publication.

Unflattering portrayals

Tsang thinks limiting CNKI access looks like an attempt by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to use information to shape how outside academics can research China, “perhaps with a view to ensure outsiders cannot access material to portray China in a critical light.”

Perry Link, professor of Chinese language studies at the University of California-Riverside, told VOA Mandarin, “Spokespeople for the CCP regularly accuse the U.S. of a ‘Cold War mentality.’ In today's information age, nothing is a clearer example of a Cold War mentality than to block the free flow of government reports and scholarly papers from crossing international borders.”

According to Nikkei Asia, CNKI's operator, Tongfang Knowledge Network Technology, took the action in accordance with the "Measures of Data Cross-Border Transfer Assessment and relevant laws."

The Cyberspace Administration of China announced in June 2022 that it was investigating the operator to preempt risks related to data and national security.

China’s state-run media outlet Global Times said that CNKI “holds a large amount of personal information and important data related to key industries such as national defense, industry, telecommunications, transportation, natural resources, health care and finance” as well as “sensitive information such as major projects, important scientific and technological achievements, and key technological trends."

The Measures of Data Cross-Border Transfer Assessment was issued in July 2022 and implemented on September 1. It stipulates that companies that provide "important data" overseas need to declare and accept a data security assessment.

National security, public interest

According to consulting firm Deloitte, the assessment is conducted from the perspective of national security and public interest, as well as the legitimate rights and interests of individuals or organizations.

Bert Hofman, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore and a professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School, told VOA Mandarin in an email, “Access to CNKI is also a test for China’s rules on international data transfer. Regulations issued September last year were meant to enable such transfers, and data transfer is part of trade agreements such as CPTPP [Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership] to which China has applied.”

Restricting access to CNKI “will have a negative effect on the communications between scholars both inside and outside of China,” Witzke said.

“CNKI isn’t just used for China-focused issues, it’s also a repository of dissertations and other academic work by Chinese scholars," he said. "If scholars outside of China lose access it has quite a chilling effect on academic exchange. This exchange has already been stifled due to travel restrictions over the pandemic and China’s long-standing restrictions on many digital communication platforms.”

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.