Chinese liberal think tank’s days were numbered, director says
Although the head of Unirule Institute of Economics criticised a top judge days before it was taken offline, the move was long-planned, his associate says
The sudden removal from the internet of a prominent private think tank lead by liberal economist Mao Yushi was likely long-planned by the authorities, rather than the result of an individual incident, his associate said.
The official website of Unirule Institute of Economics, a 24-year-old think tank, and a handful of its social media accounts were shut down last Friday afternoon by Beijing’s municipal internet censor.
The government accused Unirule’s website of disseminating news without a proper licence, but the think tank said the authority had “the obvious aim of silencing Unirule totally”.
The group is just the latest victim of an intense push by the central authorities to silence the liberal intellectuals, as part of a wider push to cement its rule.
In July, Chinese media administrators sacked Du Daozheng, an influential former cadre known as a reform thinker, from Yanhuang Chunqiu, an outspoken political magazine he founded. For 20 years, Du’s magazine published articles critical of the Communist Party, and he had the support of many party members, including Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun.
Authorities in October shut down a flagship website known as The Consensus Net, which carried articles by scholars from across the political spectrum.
With its strong belief in the market economy, the institute regularly challenges the government on its economic policies and has published reports about the reform of state-owned enterprises, anti-trust and land reforms. Its researchers include a handful of prominent economists formerly with the government’s top think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Unirule founder Mao is one of the country’s leading economists and a winner of the Milton Friedman Prize for advancing liberty in 2012. He has been a vocal critic of the country’s former leader Mao Zedong, from whom the Communist Party still seeks legitimacy.
Just a few days before Unirule was taken offline, Mao Yushi openly criticised top judge Zhou Qiang for rejecting the “erroneous” Western ideas of judicial independence. But Sheng Hong, the think tank’s director, said he believed the web shutdown was not triggered by any particular incident. “All our [online] media outlets are gone, it’s a move against the whole institute, not a decision based on any particular incident or what Mao [Yushi] said about Zhou.”
What happened to Unirule suggested Beijing wanted to put think tanks under its control, according to Xiong Wei, a Beijing-based legal activist who also runs a think tank.
“Unirule is undoubtedly the country’s most influential think tank in the private sector and it blazed the trail,” he said. “But Beijing only wants think tanks under its control.”
Another think tank was ruled illegal after its leading member was arrested by Beijing police. Guo Yushan, a social activist, had expressed support for the Occupy Central movement in 2014 . Guo’s think tank published studies on tax reform, urbanisation and environmental conservation, among other issues.
Unirule has also wielded influence in government policies, though in a somewhat different way. In a notable case, a legal amendment draft in 2009 that would further strengthen the government’s control over land was suspended after Unirule published extensive reports that lashed out at the bill’s flaws.
“Unirule seldom praises the government, because there’s already enough compliments,” Sheng Hong said. “We only give a heads up when they do poorly.”
The institute is still operating and it would not try to tune down its critical views, Sheng said. “Criticising the government is the second most boring thing to do after praising it,” he added.