Chinese liberal think tank slams Beijing censors after website and media accounts shut down
Influential Unirule Institute of Economics, which often challenges government’s economic policy, publishes protest letter online on Tuesday, which is then deleted
In a rare and brave move, a Beijing-based liberal think tank said on Tuesday that China’s internet censors had violated laws by shutting down its website and all of its social media accounts.
The move to delete the website and a handful of Unirule Institute of Economics’ social media accounts and those of a few of its members – all within the space of one hour last Friday afternoon – was done with “the obvious aim of silencing Unirule totally”, it said in a letter it published online on Tuesday.
The letter by the private think-tank, established by a group of liberal intellectuals – which was quickly deleted from the internet after being published – said no Chinese authorities had presented any official documents to support or explain the punishment, nor had they listened to the think tank’s pleas, which Chinese law required.
The deleted letter also called for greater tolerance from Beijing about “non-governmental organisations”.
“We’ve noticed that [China’s President] Mr Xi Jinping has recently defended the free trade principal at Davos, and it’s a common sense that free trade and free expression share inherent links,” the letter said.
“Free trade means the free exchange of goods, and the free expression of ideas. As ideas are more valuable than goods, those who defend free trade will necessarily defend free expression,” the letter added.
Although all signs of the letter had been deleted, Sheng Hong, the director of Unirule, confirmed to the South China Morning Post the authenticity of the letter.
Unirule is among the most influential private think tanks in China.
With its strong stance on the market economy, the institute challenges the government’s economic policies on a regular basis and has published reports about reforms of state-owned enterprises, anti-trust and land reforms.
Its researchers include a handful of economists formerly with the government’s top think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Unirule’s founder Mao Yushi, one of the country’s leading economists and a winner of the Milton Friedman Prize for advancing liberty in 2012, is a vocal critic of the country’s former leader Mao Zedong, from whom the Communist Party still seeks legitimacy.
Mao Yushi, 88, was banned from travelling to the US to receive the prize.
The Beijing municipal online information administration said in an earlier statement, via its official social media account, that it had shut down dozens of websites, including those run by Unirule, after it had received “complaints”.
The administration said the websites were involved in wrongdoings, including providing online news without obtaining the proper licences.
China has developed one of the world’s most formidable systems of internet censorship, which constantly shuts down social media accounts or websites.
Sheng said that Unirule had yet to find a proper channel to appeal against the decision to completely shutdown its website and social media accounts.
He said he was willing to accept the punishment only after a debate on – and learning about – the official decision, as required by the law.
But the institute was still operating and it would not try to “fine-tune” its critical views, Sheng said
“Criticising the government is the second most boring thing to do after praising it,” he added.
The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid affiliated with the party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, said what had happened to Mao Yushi and Unirule should be taken as a lesson instead of a paradigm.
“All the liberals must learn the lesson that openly playing on opposition or [being] a denialist will not work in China,” its Tuesday editorial said.
Mao Yushi’s comments were not constructive and sought to challenge China’s national identity, while fully rejecting Mao Zedong and state-owned enterprises, it added.
The Global Times article was deleted from the internet hours after it was published.