Human rights in China

Chinese government pressured property agent into welding iron gates to liberal think tank office doors, penning in workers, director says

Unirule Institute of Economics employees trapped for over an hour as authorities try to silence ‘different voice’, its director says.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2018, 10:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 July, 2018, 12:15pm

Workers at a Chinese think tank known for its liberal views on economic policy found themselves temporarily imprisoned behind iron gates at their Beijing office on Tuesday as a tenancy dispute with the group’s landlord ratcheted up a notch.

Agents representing the property owner welded two security gates to the entrances to the offices of Unirule Institute of Economics as five people were working inside.

Jiang Hao, a researcher with the organisation, said he and his colleagues were locked in against their will.

“They only opened the door after we called the police,” he said. “[We] were illegally detained for over an hour.”

When the employees returned to work on Wednesday morning the new gates had been padlocked again, and they were unable to get inside.

Founded in 1993 by China’s leading liberal economist, Mao Yushi – who won the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty in 2012 – the institute is an advocate for the market economy and regularly challenges the government on its economic policies.

In a notable case from 2009, a draft legal amendment that would have strengthened the government’s control over land was suspended after Unirule published extensive reports criticising it.

Its contrary stance has drawn the ire of the government and it has frequently been the target of official censorship.

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In January last year, online censors shut down its website and deleted the social media accounts of several of its members. Four months later, the institute was barred from holding an academic seminar during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, with staff members arriving at their former office one morning to find the front door locked and the lift button to their floor disabled.

Unirule moved to its current address inside a gated residential community in the west of Beijing in October after being forced to vacate an office building in the city’s downtown area.

The organisation, like other liberal academics and opinion leaders, has been under increased pressure since President Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012 and began his programme of tightening controls on ideology and clamping down on dissent.

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“It must be the pressure from the government,” Unirule director Sheng Hong said of the events of Tuesday and Wednesday.

“The authorities do not want [to tolerate] a different voice, but they do not want to brazenly shut us down either, because that would make it look too terrible.

“They obviously want to try to turn it into a civil dispute, but people are not idiots and everyone can tell what’s the real matter here – the agent does not have the ability or motive to do this,” he said.

Sheng recounted Tuesday’s incident on Weibo – China’s answer to Twitter – but his words and photographs were censored within hours of being posted.

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The organisation’s property dispute began in March, when the agent, acting on behalf of the landlord, ordered it to vacate the offices on the grounds it was using a residential property for commercial purposes.

Unirule said the agent has no right to terminate the contract on such grounds, as a supplement to the lease signed by both parties clearly states that the two flats are to be used as offices.

In a notice seen by the South China Morning Post, the agent said Unirule had to move out before July 3 and that if it failed to do so it would turn off the electricity and water, and take back the property, along with anything left inside.

When the Post called Li Peiqing, a manager with the property agent, for a comment on the dispute, he replied: “I have no idea what you’re talking about” and hung up the phone.

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Unirule said it is seeking to resolve the dispute through legal channels. Last week, its lawyer filed a suit to a Beijing court, which has yet to accept the case.

“We will accept it if the court rules against us, but we hope the authorities don’t prevent the court from taking up the case,” Sheng said.

“Otherwise it just shows that China has not even entered the threshold of the rule of law.”