Liberal economics think tank Unirule locked out of its office for ‘security reasons’ ahead of forum

Founder and former CASS economist Mao Yushi prevented from leaving home for duration of belt and road forum

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 May, 2017, 5:40pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 May, 2017, 8:45pm

A two-day academic seminar at China’s largest non-official think tank was called off on Saturday because doors and lifts at its office building were locked and disabled amid upgraded security for Beijing’s two-day belt and road forum that begins on Sunday.

Members of the Unirule Institute of Economics, one of China’s most influential private think tanks, arrived at their office on Saturday to find the front door locked and the button to their floor disabled at the elevator.

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The think tank was told on Friday night not to hold the seminar, but the main scholars decided to attend any way as visiting speakers had arrived in Beijing, according to Wu Si, Unirule’s chairman.

The drama took place as the capital was getting in gear for the belt and road summit, a major diplomatic event in which President Xi Jinping is hosting delegates from more than 100 countries – including 29 who are sending top leaders – to discuss the Beijing-backed initiative to assert its rise of global status. The two-day forum kicks off on Sunday.

On the same day, Zhang Junkuo, Vice President of the State Council’s Development Research Centre, told a press briefing that the country would encouraged more think tanks to take part and provide advice to the country’s belt and road initiatives, with so far 47 think tanks from 30 countries joined the China-led Silkroad Think Tank Association.

A large presence of regular and paramilitary police and security volunteers with red armbands was seen on major streets on Saturday.

Most speakers for the Unirule meeting were advised against attending the seminar, and the think tank’s founder Mao Yushi, who was to give the opening speech on Saturday morning, was prevented from leaving his home on Saturday morning.

“Police officers nearby and a department director from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences came to my house early this morning,” Mao said. “They told me not to go to the seminar, but did not state their reason.”

Mao, an 88-year-old liberal economist, is a retired CASS researcher. He won the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty in 2012 .

Speaking to the Post by phone, Mao said he expected more moves by the authorities, but the think tank will try its best to survive.

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With its strong belief in the market economy, the institute regularly challenges the government on its economic policies and has published reports about state owned enterprises as well as anti-trust and land reforms. Its researchers include a handful of prominent economists who were also formerly with CASS.

The report The 2015 Think Tanks and Civil Societies Programme conducted by the University of Pennsylvania ranked Unirule in 103rd place among more than 6,000 others. The organisations were judged on a set of factors including their influence and the number and quality of their reports. Unirule was the only Chinese private think tank listed among the world’s top 175.

Amid a broader wave of crackdowns on liberal Chinese intellectuals, Unirule saw its official website and some of its social media accounts shut down in January. Several members also had their social media accounts deleted.