One of China’s only independent thinktanks has been ordered to shut down, another sign of the dramatically shrinking space for public debate under the government of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.
The Unirule Institute of Economics, one of China’s few remaining outposts of liberal thought, said in a statement on Monday that local authorities had declared the thinktank “unregistered and unauthorised.”
Critics said the shuttering of Unirule, founded in 1993 during China’s reform and opening era to promote both economic and political liberalisation, was an indication that those ideals were increasingly no longer welcome.
Unirule, whose name refers to “universal rules”, was founded by a group of economists and provided a rare forum for liberal Chinese intellectuals.
“There were definitely signs of this coming shutdown,” said Sheng Hong, an economist and Unirule’s executive director. “The government has been narrowing down the scope of free speech.”
Over the last few years, the thinktank has come under growing pressure. Sheng was among staff at the thinktank who were barred from going abroad last year on the basis of national security concerns.
In 2018, the company from whom Unirule leased their offices abruptly soldered the gates of their office shut, trapping staff inside temporarily. But the organisation kept going, operating in coffee shops until they moved into a new office.
In July, Unirule received a directive from a civil affairs bureau that the organisation had been banned. Later in the month, a regulatory body said it was revoking their business licence for operating a website without a permit.
Sheng said the organisation would appeal against the decisions but he was not optimistic after an affiliated consultancy of theirs was closed last year and their appeals were ignored. “It would be similar this time, so we don’t hold out much hope,” he said.
Despite its liberal bent, Unirule has focused on economic policies rather than overtly political topics. Last year, it held a series of seminars to “commemorate 40 years’ of China’s reform and opening”. Sheng and another researcher, Pu Qian, recently published a book on the government’s allocation of resources in education, healthcare, and land.
The respected thinktank, which pushed for pro-market reforms and held seminars on Chinese history, land rights, and healthcare among other topics, was also a resource for some government policymakers.
Yet some of Unirule’s experts are known for being outspoken. Xu Zhangrun, a Unirule fellow and a law professor at Tsinghua University, last year published a rare essay criticising Xi that was widely circulated. He has since been suspended from his university.
Researchers once believed Unirule’s survival was itself a reason for hope in the progress of China’s legal system.
“China is making a transition from arbitrary rule of law to rile of law, and we’re an example of that,” Jiang Hao, a public policy researcher for the organisation, told the New York Times last year.
In its statement on Monday, Unirule said the ban on their organisation was a “serious violation” of China’s own laws, including the constitution, which maintains citizens’ rights of freedom of speech, publishing and association.
It said: “We regret that the two administrative agencies have not fulfilled their constitutional obligations and have not … abided by ‘rule of law’ as advocated by the Chinese Communist party.”
After so many years, Sheng said he was sad to see Unriule closed. “I feel very sorry but also at peace. Under this kind of system, we do not only what we should but what we can.”