Staff at a Chinese think tank were recently shut out of their office in an apparent attempt to silence them.
Unirule Institute of Economics is rare among think tanks in China: It is independent of Beijing and has been critical of the central authorities’ economic policies. The majority of think tanks are either state-run or affiliated with local authorities.
Last month, Unirule published a report about state-owned companies. Its conclusion was that despite financial support from the central government, many continue to operate at a loss, according to Voice of America.
Founded in 1993 by liberal economist Mao Yushi, Unirule has found itself in the crosshairs of the Chinese authorities before.
In 2005, a staff member published an article supporting the further privatization of state-owned firms. The think tank subsequently lost its government-approved operating license.
In January 2017, Beijing’s internet censorship office shut down Unirule’s website on the grounds that it never obtained a license. Key staff members’ social media accounts on WeChat and Weibo were also deleted.
In May, the institute was barred from holding a seminar during a forum in Beijing on China’s One Belt, One Road overseas investment project, according to a report by the South China Morning Post (SCMP). Staff members arrived at their office to find that the front door was locked and the elevator button to their floor was disabled.
In October, Unirule was finally forced to vacate the office, which landed them at their current address in a residential neighborhood of Beijing.
But on July 10, the property owner of their current office welded two security gates at the entrance of Unirule’s office, trapping those who were working inside, according to Unirule director Sheng Hong, who recounted the events on Weibo, a platform similar to Twitter, and the think tank’s website. His Weibo posts were soon deleted by internet censors.
The staff were trapped inside for over an hour. Agents representing the owner only opened the door after Unirule staff called the police, according to SCMP.
“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,” Sheng told SCMP.
The following day, staff members went to work and discovered that the security gates were padlocked and they were shut out of their office.
The property dispute started earlier in March when the building landlord ordered Unirule to vacate, on the grounds that it was using a residential property for commercial use, according to a post on Unirule’s website.
But Unirule said their lease, signed by both parties and due to expire in 2020, clearly states that the flats can be used as offices. The web post includes captured images of the lease confirming those details.
The landlord threatened to stop electricity and running water if they did not comply.
Sheng added that he plans to take the property dispute to court and has filed a lawsuit at a Beijing court.
“The authorities have long seen Unirule as a thorn in its side,” said Zhang Lifan, an independent historian, in an interview with Radio Free Asia. “After eliminating ‘Yanhuang Chunqiu,’ their target turned to Unirule.”
“Yanhuang Chunqiu” was a monthly publication that frequently discussed touchy political subjects, with a more reformist bent. In 2013, its website was closed by the authorities after it published an editorial urging the Chinese regime to better protect people’s constitutional rights.
In July 2016, the magazine stopped printing after its editorial staff was reshuffled after the Chinese National Academy of Arts, a state agency, took over operations.