The shuttering of an independent, liberal think tank last week by authorities in Beijing is part of a long-term strategy by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to limit the freedom of expression of Chinese intellectuals, according to a leading constitutional scholar.
Five members of staff at the Unirule Institute of Economics founded by liberal economist Mao Yushi were shut into their offices last week after unidentified men welded the front door shut, ostensibly at the request of the property owner.
"On the afternoon of July 10th, 2018, Unirule office was interrupted by the agents of the office property owner," a brief post on the institute's website read this week. "Iron gates were welded to the office doors."
One researcher was quoted as saying via Twitter that the staff members were illegally detained for more than an hour, and had to call the police to be able to exit the premises. Nobody has been able to gain access to the offices since.
Mao, who was awarded the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty in 2012, found the institute to promote economic and political reform in China, and has repeatedly challenged the government on its economic policy since its inception in 1993.
Since taking power in 2012, President Xi Jinping 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 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.
Ever-worsening climate for dissent
Beijing-based historian and constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan said the closure of the institute comes amid an ever-worsening climate for dissent in China.
"I think the main reason is that Unirule is seen as a last bastion for liberal thought, so it has been continually targeted," Zhang told RFA in a recent interview. "This has been going on for years now."
"Ever since they did away with Yanhuang Chunqiu, the Unirule Institute has been next in the firing line," he said.
Zhang said he doesn't believe that Unirule is being targeted because it offended someone in power with a specific report or comment.
"I don't think it's necessarily because [of that]," he said. "I think is part of a long-term strategy, namely, to suppress the freedom of expression of intellectuals, and people in general."
Unirule's director, Sheng Hong, said the current trade war with the United States means that China has more need than ever before of independent voices to shape policy, however.
"If you only speak with one voice, then we can provide a counterpoint to that: two voices are better than one," he said of current ideological controls under Xi.
"We should be able to look at problems from a number of different angles," Sheng said. "We have debated a number of topics of great importance to society in recent years, including topics that aren't being discussed within the system, such as state-owned enterprises."
Sheng said the group still hopes to seek legal redress for the sealing of its premises.
"We don't want to try to fix this out of our own pockets," he said. "We will make use of the legal institutions that exist in our society ... and will exhaust all available, legal channels."
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.