Why Is China Afraid of a Few Free Market Academics?

Doug Bandow

I visited Beijing a few weeks back. China’s capital continues to impress, full of growth and energy.

My first trip there was in 1992 to a city more dependent on bicycles and motor scooters than automobiles, and without block after block of gleaming new offices and hotels. Today Beijing looks like the center of a great power likely on its way to superpowerdom.

Certainly, leaders of the People’s Republic of China believe they are destined to exercise ever greater international influence. The caution and deference that the PRC once demonstrated in interacting with foreign powers has disappeared. Pick a controversy—South China Sea, Taiwan, Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Hong Kong, Belt and Road Initiative—Beijing has become more assertive. China’s time as a helpless victim of Western imperialism is long over.

Yet why are those sitting atop such a seemingly confident, prosperous, and strong nation afraid of a few free market academics?

During my last visit I stopped by the offices of what remained of the Unirule Institute of Economics. The well-respected organization was formed in 1993 by six economists, most importantly Mao Yushi (no relation to Mao Zedong) and Sheng Hong. My organization, the Cato Institute, gave the former the 2012 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to honor his work on behalf of human freedom. Now retired at the age of ninety, Mao Yushi paid a price for activism. Noted his award citation, Mao “has faced severe punishment, exile, and near starvation for remarks critical of a command-based economy and society.” The late Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel laureate, said of Mao: his “bravery is worthy of our respect.”

However, despite the hardship of its founder, Unirule was no revolutionary political organization. Its name stood for “universal rules,” essentially the rule of law. Its focus was moving toward a more market-oriented economy. The group’s work was scholarly, performed by economists and academics. Its publications were high-brow, its books often published in China. Unirule’s international contacts were mainstream and focused on economic reform.

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