BEIJING — An independent think tank that was one of China’s few remaining bastions for liberal-democratic ideas was shut out of its Beijing offices on Wednesday, throwing its survival into doubt.

Some workers at the think tank, the Unirule Institute of Economics, found themselves briefly trapped inside when the company that manages the lease on the institute’s offices locked and welded its door shut.

Unirule was founded 25 years ago to promoteliberalizing China’s economy and democratizing its government. Those ideas have become officially unwelcome under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leader who has driven China to re-embrace staunchly socialist values, and the group has come under increased government pressure.

The institute’s executive director, Sheng Hong, said the landlord appeared to be acting under pressure from the government authorities. Finding another landlord who would tolerate its presence would be difficult, he said.

“We’re very pessimistic because we clearly understand that there are more senior people behind this, although we don’t have the evidence to prove it,” Mr. Sheng, an economist, said in an interview. “The leasing company is out to make money, and there’s no reason that they’d make trouble on their own. That would be illogical.”

Closing Unirule would represent a major blow to independent intellectual life under Mr. Xi. For years the institute was tolerated, sometimes even consulted, by government officials, and it gained a prominence beyond its small size.

“It’s been very significant,” said Zhu Xueqin, a historian in Beijing who gave a talk this month at the institute. “It’s been an important platform for Chinese intellectuals to publish their independent views.”

But Unirule has become increasingly isolated as other outposts of liberal opinion have gone silent.

Several months after coming to power in 2012, Mr. Xi ordered an offensive against liberal ideas that he said were eroding the Communist Party’s authority, including constitutional limits on government, civil society and universal human rights.

Since then, liberal Chinese academics and writers have become increasingly marginalized, and denied chances to lecture or publish. Publications, groups and websites that served as platforms for unorthodox views have closed or retreated to safer topics.

In 2016, loyalist party officials took control of Yanhuang Chunqiu, a monthly history magazine that had been a flagship for liberal intellectuals and retired officials. In 2013, the Transition Institute, another adventurous think tank in Beijing, was shut by the government; its founder, Guo Yushan, was detained in 2014 and held for nearly a year.

So far, Unirule has escaped that fate. But its survival has become increasingly tenuous.

The institute was forced out of larger offices in October, and this year its main websites and social media accounts in China were shut by regulators, making it difficult for Unirule to publicize its ideas. (It now runs a website accessible in China only if readers have software to creep past internet censorship barriers.)

Unirule has remained alive by focusing on economic policy debates that are less threatening to the government than bluntly political topics. It has also been protected by the prestige of its founder, Mao Yushi, an 89-year-old economist.

“Our survival is a testament to China’s development of rule of law,” said Jiang Hao, a law and public policy researcher who works for Unirule. “China is making a transition from arbitrary rule to rule of law, and we’re an example of that.”

Mr. Mao and other scholars founded the Unirule Institute in 1993 as a vehicle for promoting market reforms, stronger private property rights, rule of law and other liberal ideas.

But it and other outposts of liberal democracy in China came under deepening pressure even before Mr. Xi rose to power.

In 2004, the institute lost government sponsorship that had given it some protection, and since then it has operated as a consulting company. It has relied on consultancy fees, grants and donations from private donors and foreign foundations. As those sources have also shrunk, Unirule has kept going by charging for courses offered to Chinese entrepreneurs who often admire Mr. Mao as an enlightened advocate of their interests.

Since October, Unirule has used a rented apartment in a residential compound in western Beijing for its activities. There it regularly holds seminars that have become a rare public venue for heterodox views in the Chinese capital.

In recent weeks, dozens of people crowded into the office to hear Zhang Ming, a prominent historian, discuss why the Nationalist government fell to Communist forces in 1949. More recently, Professor Zhu, the historian from Shanghai, gave a speech there arguing that China’s course of reform and opening up had stalled after 1989.

On Tuesday, five staff members of the institute were trapped in the office for an hour or so after the leasing company locked and welded shut the office doors, said Mr. Jiang, the researcher, who was among them. They were freed after the police arrived, but the institute’s doors were locked again on Wednesday, he said.

Li Peiqing, a manager for the Aijiaying leasing company, said it had locked Unirule out after the police and a residential committee told it to end the lease, citing complaints from residents.

“This matter has been fully under the guidance of the government and the police station,” Mr. Li said in a telephone interview. “The residential committee and the police station contacted us yesterday and told us to terminate contractual relations with Unirule.”

Mr. Sheng, the institute’s executive director, said Unirule had not received complaints from residents, and he argued that the dispute should be settled through the courts.

China’s judges seem unlikely to back the institute. But Mr. Sheng said that if Unirule was forced out, it would try to go on by renting temporary spaces for meetings.

“There’s certainly going to be an impact, but it won’t be fatal,” he said. “With modern technology you don’t necessarily need a physical office.”

Additional research by Karoline Kan.



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