Under President Xi Jinping, however, there is no space for peaceful expression of liberal ideas, even those that were officially tolerated, or encouraged, before he took power in 2012. And Unirule has been definitively shut down. On Monday, the think tank issued a statement announcing that local authorities in Beijing had declared it “unregistered and unauthorised.” This was not entirely surprising. Unirule had been under increasing official pressure; last year, the group’s landlord abruptly canceled its lease at the government’s behest, forcing Unirule to operate out of coffee shops until it found new offices. Staff were forbidden to travel abroad. A month ago, Unirule was told it was about to be banned, allegedly for operating an unauthorized website.
The think tank’s name is a reference to the liberal democratic ideal of “universal rules,” as in the laws that apply equally in all fields of endeavor, whether political, economic or cultural. Mr. Xi operates according to a rather different notion, which is that all Chinese must submit to the party’s rule, and because he runs the party, that means they must submit to him. Increasingly, he promotes a personality cult and a penchant for mass political campaigns reminiscent of China under Mao Zedong. This is a setback for all those Westerners who hoped, or dreamed, that China’s increasingly capitalistic economic ways would gradually pave the way for a freer political system, as well.
That was the process Unirule itself had been established to promote. And intellectuals associated with the group refused to give up on that hope, even after it became clear that Mr. Xi was bent on crushing liberalism. Their persistence is probably at least part of the reason Unirule has been shut down. In 2018, Xu Zhangrun, a Unirule fellow and a law professor at Tsinghua University, published a lengthy critique of Mr. Xi in which he mocked the Communist ruler and warned that “in one fell swoop, China will be cast back to the terrifying days of Mao.” For speaking truth, to — and about — power, Mr. Xu’s punishment was the loss of his job, at least temporarily, a punishment that has now been extended to his Unirule colleagues as well. In snuffing out this dissenting voice, Mr. Xi seems not to care that he has converted his critic’s prediction into a prophecy.