China Deals Death Blow to Liberal Economics Think Tank Unirule


2019.08.28
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unirule.jpg The shuttered office of the Unirule Economic Research Institute in Beijing, a liberal think thank which the Chinese Communist Party has ordered closed.
Sheng Hong

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has shut down a liberal think tank following police raids on its premises late last year, in a move that
analysts said paves the way for a return to the political ideology of the Mao era.

The Unirule Economic Research Institute confirmed the decision in a statement on its official website. It said the institute "strongly condemned" the action by the local government.

Unirule's executive director Sheng Hong said the move was a violation of China's constitution, and that the institute would lodge an administrative appeal.

"We have zero chance of success, but we should do it anyway, because we have the legal and constitutional right to do so," Sheng told RFA on Wednesday.

"If the relevant government departments do not obey the constitution and the law of the land, then the problem lies with them," he said. "I have no power to prevent them from breaking the law."

Sheng said the shuttering of Unirule comes against a much broader political backdrop under which citizens have no freedom of association, as protected in Article 35 of China's constitution.

"The wider context is that our freedom of association under Article 35 isn't being upheld, and the rights granted in that article have no protection," he said.

He said the institute has let go more than 10 staff to date, while others remain employed to take care of bankruptcy proceedings, which are estimated to take about a year.

The institute was founded in 1993 by liberal economist Mao Yushi, who has repeatedly challenged the government on its economic policy and was awarded the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty in 2012.

Tight ideological controls since 2012

Since taking power in 2012, President Xi has launched an unprecedented set of ideological controls and boosted the institutions needed to enforce them.

Xi has repeatedly warned members of the political class not to go off message in public, and set up a nationwide monitoring agency to supervise and detain anyone remotely connected with the government, including civil servants, teachers and academics, journalists, and contractors.

The closure of Unirule comes after the closure last year of the liberal political magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu and the outspoken analysis website ConsensusNet, both of which had specialized in wide-ranging political and economic analysis.

Unirule's website was also shuttered in January 2016, and the social media accounts of some of its prominent members deleted.

Police in Beijing have also imposed a travel ban on Sheng, who had been invited to take part in a Harvard symposium last year examining China’s 40 years of economic reforms.

Independent constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan said Xi is taking China back to the Mao era, ideologically speaking.

"All of this has been happening since the current leadership took office," Zhang said. "The suppression of freedom of speech and academic freedom are directly related to the ideology of the current leadership, which is engaged in an ideological return to the Mao era."

Zhang said Unirule wasn't previously considered an oppositional voice in Chinese political and academic circles.

"Unirule offered no real opposition, nor any political opposition at all," he said. "It was a genuine academic body."

"But in recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has tended to regard non-governmental organizations as a hotbed of color revolution," Zhang said. "The authorities are shutting channels through which they might be able to hear different opinions."

Some in China believe Unirule was targeted because it received some U.S.$200,000 in funding from the U.S.-based Ford Foundation. However, those funds accounted for less that one percent of its total funding.

Reported by Gao Feng and Qu Yige for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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