Authorities in the Chinese capital have revoked the business license of a liberal economics think-tank, saying it had carried out "illegal online education activities."
The move comes after a police raid sealed off the premises of the Unirule Institute of Economics in July, and after its executive director Sheng Hong was prevented from leaving the country last week on grounds of "national security."
"The relevant parties organized and carried out six online classes between January 2014 and July 2018 via the institute's website, unirule.cloud," a notice issued by the Beijing municipal bureau of industry and commerce said.
"We also found, according to the Haidian district education bureau, that these activities were carried out without official approval," it said, adding that Sheng had been sent a notification of an administrative punishment hearing on Oct. 10.
Sheng told RFA on Monday that the institute had criticized the move on Friday, saying it went against recent assurances by President Xi Jinping that the ruling Chinese Communist Party would support and protect the private sector.
"The Haidian bureau of industry and commerce issued us with a notification that it is suspending our business license and subjecting us to legal proceedings," Sheng said. "I think that they are aiming at the wrong target with misguided evidence."
"We were engaged in the promotion of ideology and political theory, but their reasons are pretty sketchy," he said. "I don't know what their motivations are for canceling our license, but I think it's ridiculous in the extreme."
Sheng said the institute would be suspending activities for the time being, until it could enjoy the protection of the law.
"We don't feel that this is a good environment right now; the current system isn't favorable, so we will only be carrying out further activities when we have the usual protections of the law and the constitution," he said.
"It's pretty clear that they are targeting the private sector," Sheng said. "But the industry and commerce bureaus should be working for the private sector, to ensure the smooth functioning of the market."
Veteran Beijing rights activist Hu Jia said Unirule was widely respected as a politically moderate and independent think-tank.
"The Communist Party under Xi Jinping don't want to hear any different voices or ideas coming from elsewhere in society, especially not from the private sector organizations that register as businesses," Hu said.
"A lot of private-sector non-government groups that register as businesses can very easily have their licenses revoked, if they diverge from the central leadership's line," he said.
"Unirule were still a fairly independent voice; independent thinkers who carried out independent research," Hu said. "Under Xi Jinping's version of socialism, there can be only one set of core values."
Constitutional scholar and independent historian Zhang Lifan said agreed.
"They were in no sense a political organization, just a non-government research organization," Zhang said. "They registered as a business because the government was going after NGOs."
Zhang said Unirule's research had influenced Chinese policymakers at the highest level.
"Academic opinions from the Unirule Institute were accepted at the highest levels of leadership," he said. "But the authorities have suppressed the institute ... probably for ideological reasons."
Last week, police in Beijing imposed a travel ban on Sheng, who had been invited to take part in a Harvard symposium this month examining China’s 40 years of economic reforms.
Sheng was barred from boarding a flight to Chicago last week by police at Beijing's Capital International Airport, who said his departure would "harm national security."
He said his recent articles had offered nothing but constructive economic suggestions, and fall within the freedom of speech that is enshrined in China's constitution.
In July, the authorities welded shut Unirule's front door, trapping five members of staff, a move commentators said is part of a long-term strategy by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to limit the freedom of expression of Chinese intellectuals.
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.
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.
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 came 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.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.