China’s Crackdown on Dissent Claims Free-Market Think Tank

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(Bloomberg) -- One of China’s most prominent independent think tanks will cease operations after years of attempts by government officials to silence it.

The Unirule Institute of Economics, which advocated free-market economic theories and is well known in U.S. academic circles, has decided to shut down after district officials in Beijing declared that it was operating without authorization, the organization said in a statement dated Aug. 26. Although Unirule said it intends to fight the government determinations, it will nonetheless halt its activities and stop updating its website apart from notices relevant to the winding-down process.

China’s Crackdown on Dissent Claims Free-Market Think Tank

The end of Unirule closes down one of the last venues for open debate on economic issues in China. Founded in the early 1990s by a pair of celebrated Chinese economists, Mao Yushi and Sheng Hong, Unirule once enjoyed a broad following in business and political circles, producing widely read analyses of government policies and financial issues. But that changed dramatically under President Xi Jinping, who has implemented a broad crackdown on dissent since taking power in 2012.

The banning decisions “seriously violate Article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China,” which guarantees freedom of speech, Unirule said in its statement. The measures, it said, “infringe on the general constitutional rights of all citizens and organizations” and contradict the “‘rule of law’ advocated by the Communist Party.”

China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Unirule’s statement.

Unirule’s fate signals that the space for uncensored discussion in China is narrowing even further as Xi navigates a trade war with the U.S. and continuing protests in Hong Kong. While Mao and Sheng mostly confined their advocacy to economics, not politics, both have frequently criticized China’s failure to rein in state-owned companies, arguing that only a vibrant private sector can deliver prosperity.

"This move should finally put to rest any speculation that Xi is looking to eventually pivot to economic or political reform," Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair of China Studies at the Center for Strategic International Studies, said of the government declaration that Unirule Institute was operating without authorization. "This also raises profound questions about the direction of China’s political development. Without independent voices offering alternative viewpoints, how can China’s leaders make effective decisions?"

Before this week’s decision, Unirule had endured years of official and unofficial efforts to halt or circumscribe its activities. Its website and social media channels were blocked from access within mainland China in 2017, shortly before the institute was forced to move from its longtime Beijing office. It was later evicted again, by a landlord so eager to bar access to Unirule’s premises that some of its staff found themselves briefly welded inside. Sheng, meanwhile, was barred from leaving the country in 2018 on the grounds that he was a threat to national security.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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