On July 10, 2018, a leasing company, apparently working at the behest of Chinese officials, shut down the offices of the Unirule Institute of Economics (Unirule), an independent economic think tank.
Founded in 1993 by economist Mao Yushi, Unirule is known as one of the most liberal centers for research and policy development on economics and government in China. In its early years, the Chinese government supported the institute; however, in 2004, it lost government financial support. In January 2016, Unirule’s website was shut down by Chinese authorities and several of its staff had their social media accounts deleted. According to Unirule’s founder, Chinese Communist Party officials stated that the institute’s website “violated the law.”
In March 2018, the Aijiaying leasing company, which manages the building that housed Unirule’s offices, ordered the institute to vacate its offices by July 3. Aijiaying reportedly claimed that the property is residential and, thus, was being inappropriately used for commercial purposes. Unirule disputed this, citing a supplement to the lease, signed by both parties, which states that the property would be used as office space.
On July 10, individuals allegedly from the leasing company welded the doors of Unirule shut while five staff members were still inside the office. The staff were later freed after calling police for assistance. Unirule’s office was again shuttered the next day.
According to Unirule executive director Sheng Hong, the leasing company appeared to be acting under pressure from governmental authorities. A manager for the leasing company has stated that they were instructed to terminate contractual relations with Unirule by the police and a residential committee that cited alleged complaints about Unirule from local residents. According to Sheng, Unirule had not received complaints. Sheng further commented that Unirule would “seek legal redress for the sealing of its premises.”
SAR is concerned about efforts to shut down an independent, scholarly institution in apparent retaliation for academic conduct or content. State authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with the peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom so long as those activities are undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Actions aimed at limiting research and collaboration harm academic freedom and undermine society generally.