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Chinese Tycoon Who Called Xi a 'Clown' Faces Prosecution

FILE - Policemen walk past the US consulate in Chengdu, southwestern China's Sichuan province, July 26, 2020.
FILE - Policemen walk past the US consulate in Chengdu, southwestern China's Sichuan province, July 26, 2020.

Disappeared for calling China’s authoritarian leader Xi Jinping a “clown,” Chinese property tycoon Ren Ziqiang has been kicked out of the Communist Party and now faces a criminal investigation that could end with prosecution.

“If this is not political persecution, then what is?” a friend of Ren’s, a Chinese businesswoman, told VOA Mandarin.

Ren, who went missing in March after criticizing Xi, was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and his case passed to the judiciary system for criminal investigation late Thursday night. At least some of his assets “involved in the case” were being confiscated, according to the 500-word announcement issued by the party’s Commission for Discipline Inspection in Beijing’s Xicheng district.

The announcement came as China and the U.S. faced off over closing each other’s consulates in Houston and Chengdu, respectively.

The timing suggests an attempt by Beijing to downplay what was happening to the well-known billionaire real estate developer who was a former top executive of the state-owned property developer, Huayuan Real Estate Group. He was also the vice-party secretary of the enterprise or one of the top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) functionaries in the company.

Outspoken critic

With a superstar’s reputation for making money for the party and himself, Ren was known for speaking his mind about the party, Xi and China’s future. In February 2016, “Big Cannon Ren” questioned Xi’s statement that the media must serve the party. The CCP responded by suspending his membership for a year and shutting down his Weibo account, which had more than 37 million followers. Weibo is China’s version of Twitter.

In October, Xi said that the executives of SOEs owed total loyalty to the CCP with a duty to enhance China’s “overall national power, economic and social development, and people's wellbeing,” according to official state media.

Few behind China’s "Great Firewall" have been willing to defend Ren, except for Wang Ying, a businesswoman who considers him a friend, even after his disappearance in March. That came not long after he published criticism of the party’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late December.

Ren, 69, suggested that the party’s crackdown on free speech, which included muzzling the doctor who first raised the alarm about a new pneumonia-like illness, caused a deadly delay. In his essay, he indirectly suggested that Xi was a power-hungry “clown” and suggested the party, which Xi leads, should oust him.

The Thursday night announcement said Ren had “seriously violated the law and party discipline,” and continued to state, “he resisted the party’s investigation,” which suggests Ren did not confess to any wrongdoing.

If the investigation finds any evidence implicating Ren, he could be criminally charged and tried.

Support from a friend

Wang spoke to VOA Mandarin via telephone from Beijing on Friday morning, hours after friends told her of the latest developments in Ren’s situation. She said what happened to him was not beyond the realm of her expectation.

Since March, “we have received news about Ren Zhiqiang from time to time. He has always maintained his position. He didn't bow down, didn’t give in, so there must be consequences like this,” said Wang.

Ren obviously had conflicts with his party, she said, and he did not shy away from letting his opinions of the party and the party leader be known. Wang added that if the party could not tolerate having Ren as a member and was determined to dump him, there was not much she could say or do as a non-party member.

“(They can say) we don’t want a member like you, but why on earth must they fabricate some crimes and try to imprison him?” she asked. “This is blatant political persecution.”

Professor speaks out

Cai Xia, a former professor at China’s Central Party School who is believed to have left China recently for the U.S., wrote an article in support of Ren, saying “Persecuting Ren Zhiqiang and cruelly suppressing different opinions within the party is another evil crime committed by the Xi gangster.”

The official statement issued by the Commission for Discipline Inspection said Ren was expelled partly because he was “disloyal and dishonest to the party,” “used his power for personal gain,” was “collaborating with his children for illicit profit-taking,” and had “caused huge losses to the state assets.”

Wang told VOA Mandarin that the Ren Zhiqiang described in the official document was different from the person she knew.

“He is a good man and a good citizen, an entrepreneur who worked hard to make it, and an exceptional philanthropist,” she said as she tried to restrain her emotions. Ren was a leading funder of the environmental group, See Foundation. “We businesspeople in China are proud of him.”