CRF Blog

China’s Latest Crackdown Target Is Liberal Economists

by Bill Hayes

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that China’s Latest Crackdown Target Is Liberal Economists.

Unirule [Institute of Economics] is the brainchild of Mao Yushi, a respected 90-year-old economist who was among the first scholars to spread free-market ideas such as deregulation and privatization within China. Until recently, the think tank was one of the country’s more influential nongovernmental organizations, benefiting from the relative liberty granted to economics since the rule of Deng Xiaoping, who once declared that he didn’t care “if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” So long as they stayed mostly clear of politics, scholars were free to discuss Western thinkers and how their ideas applied to China. The result was a vibrant intellectual community that interacted with government decision-makers, providing data-driven reality checks for officials with little experience outside the Communist Party.

That space has shrunk drastically under President Xi Jinping, who has forcefully reasserted the party’s power and the state’s economic role, and has attacked the civil society that emerged under his predecessors. A crackdown on dissent that began shortly after he took office in 2012 has seen Unirule, which has a small but consequential following among entrepreneurs and academics, hounded almost into oblivion. Its Chinese website and social media accounts have been shut down, its events broken up, and some of its staff barred from traveling abroad.

As China navigates the challenges of a slowing economy and a bruising trade war with the U.S., some foreign observers have become alarmed. “Economic decision-making has become incredibly personalized under Xi. An economist who raises questions may be seen as raising questions with Xi personally,” says Julian Gewirtz, a researcher at Harvard and the author of Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China. He calls the resulting chill “a profound source of risk for China’s future.” [more]