The Chinese Communist Party has put an outspoken tycoon on one year of probation after he publicly criticized President Xi Jinping’s media policies in February — a decision that, analysts say, aims to create a chilling effect on party members and the nation’s opinion leaders.
Yet, they add, the move to silence the property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, known as China’s Donald Trump, is also a slap in the president’s face after Xi openly urged party leaders to heed online comments late last month.
The long-awaited punishment was announced on Monday after the party concluded that Ren’s comments on his microblogging accounts were a “vile influence” and “have run counter to the party’s basic principles on multiple occasions,” according to state media.
Before his Weibo account was shut down by authorities, the sharp-tongued mogul posted comments to his nearly 38 million online followers, which read “When did the people’s government change into the party’s government?” in response to Xi’s call for state media to adhere to the party line.
FILE - In this photo taken Feb. 2, 2015, a woman browses her smartphone near other attendees at a press conference in Beijing.
Calls to expel Ren have since been heard, although the tycoon, with an estimated net worth of 145 million yuan ($22 million) ended up being treated lightly this week, given his political standing, said Willy Lam, an expert on elite Chinese politics.
“His voice has been effectively silenced. Even though when you compare the treatment given to dissidents, you would say that he’s got a relatively lenient treatment,” Lam said.
Ren, nicknamed “Big Gun Ren,” is a “red second-generation,” whose father, Ren Quansheng, served as the country’s vice minister of commerce.
As a successful businessman himself, the 65-year-old tycoon is well-connected both politically and in business circles, notably, his private friendship with Wang Qishan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee.
Even so, the party now seems determined to keep Ren out of the eyes of the public.
Use of ad to protest
On Tuesday, online comments about an air purifier ad, put up by Broad Group in Changsha, Hunan province, in front of the city’s train station became the top-trending censored topic on Freeweibo.com.
The ad features Ren with a mask next to a sensitive punch line, which read “You can be silenced, but you can’t stop breathing.”
In response to the ad, one Weibo user said “the party can now expel Ren since he apparently has shown no remorse” while another user wrote “the power of capital has shown a contempt for everything,” according to the Freeweibo.com.
China's control over social media
Many of those censored online comments disagreed with the message of Ren’s ad – a sign that the authorities’ control over social media has tightened but hardly follow any patterns, said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University of China.
FILE - China has imposed new restrictions on users of popular microblog sites such as Sina Corp.’s Weibo.
“China’s censorship and media control measures hardly make any sense,” he said.
Overall, the disciplinary action has set a chilling example to quell public opinions critical of the party and Xi, said Zhang Lifan, a prominent scholar of modern Chinese history.
But, Zhang added, in the long run, such measures will eventually backfire and bring the party’s ruling legitimacy into question because many disapprove of such disciplinary action, even if they say nothing.
Signs of tightening grip by President Xi Jinping
The timing for the punishment, in particular, is ironic the scholar added, given Xi recently tried to portray himself as an open-minded leader by ordering party officials to take the opinions of the country’s 700 million netizens seriously during a cyber security workshop two weeks ago.
Lam said for now, the move will force Ren to stay low-key in the upcoming year, or risk his party membership, since Xi has ambitions to become Mao Zedong of the 21st century and shown less tolerance of critics.
“We have the party congress coming up in one-and-a-half year’s time, in which, Xi Jinping hopes to further consolidate his position as the unchallenged tyrant leader,” Lam said.
“So we expect more censorship and more intimidation against party members or intellectuals, who dare to speak out,” he added.