Banning civilian think-tanks won't do Beijing any good

November 14, 2018 18:07
Beijing should realize that allowing moderate intellectuals to embark on academic exchanges on foreign soil will actually be in its interests, writes Chung Man. Photo: CNSA

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the start of China’s economic reforms.

Compared to 10 years ago, it is beyond dispute that both the international status of China and the average incomes of mainlanders have risen significantly.

Nevertheless, the mainland has also witnessed major regression in a lot of different aspects in society, particularly the tightened leash by the Communist Party on freedom of speech. 

Recently, Sheng Hong, executive director of the libertarian Unirule Institute of Economics (“Unirule”), a civilian think-tank based in Beijing, was barred by the mainland authorities from going to the United States to attend a symposium organized by Harvard University on the 40th anniversary of China’s economic reforms, an event that had been scheduled for Nov. 5.

Dismayed and disappointed, Sheng later posted a tweet on Twitter in which he sighed that he remembered that back in 2008, when he attended a symposium on the 30th anniversary of China’s economic reforms at the University of Chicago, he felt his country’s reforms were very much mission accomplished.

Sadly, 10 years on, he was now banned from attending a symposium at Harvard University on the same subject on the grounds that it might threaten national security. 

In 2008, Beijing was hosting the Olympic Games, and in order to foster a relaxed political atmosphere, the Communist Party was more tolerant of dissenting voices at that time.

However, since then Beijing has continued relentlessly to tighten its grip on free speech in the mainland to such an extent that in today’s China, it’s pretty much “shoot-to-kill” when it comes to silencing public outcry.

Co-founded by economists such as Sheng, Mao Yushi, Zhang Shuguang, and Wu Bin in July 1993, Unirule is currently among the last remaining civilian think-tanks in the mainland.

Over the years, all the academics of Unirule did was promote freedom and the rule of law rather than make any anti-party or anti-government rhetoric. In other words, members of the Unirule are only public intellectuals but not dissidents whatsoever.

At present, almost all think-tanks in the mainland have official backgrounds and are funded by the state. As one can expect, all these organizations do is toe the party line on virtually every issue.

The truth is that it is actually in the mainland’s interest to allow public intellectuals and civilian think-tanks to exist and express their views on various social, economic and political issues from a more impartial perspective.

Yet unfortunately, following the government clampdown on the Nanfang Media Group, the Gongshiwang website and Yanhuang Chunqiu, Unirule has become the latest victim of Beijing’s crackdown on dissent.

The clampdown has seen the organization's official website and social media account ordered to shut down, its business license being on the verge of getting revoked, and its director banned from traveling abroad, almost calling a halt to the entire operation.

As governments in the West have been strongly criticizing Beijing for suppressing freedom of speech, allowing moderate intellectuals like Sheng to embark on academic exchanges on foreign soil can actually serve as a powerful rebuttal against Western accusations.

Yet it appears Beijing leaders just wouldn’t even take a chance on Sheng “behaving himself” during his overseas trip.

If anything, the Communist Party’s decision to ban Sheng from attending the Harvard symposium has simply provided more ammunition for Western powers to support their accusations against China over its crackdown on free speech, and ruined a good opportunity for Beijing to improve its international image.

Back in 2015, the 80-plus-year-old Mao Yushi made a New Year wish that he was looking forward to more freedom of speech in the mainland.

Sadly, since then the state of free speech in China has continued to go downhill, so much so that today not only have mainlanders lost their freedom of expression, but also, basically, their room to fight for such freedom.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 9

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor