FILE - Ren Zhiqiang, the former chairman of state-owned property developer Huayuan Group, speaks at the China Public Welfare Forum in Beijing, Nov. 18, 2013.
FILE - Ren Zhiqiang, the former chairman of state-owned property developer Huayuan Group, speaks at the China Public Welfare Forum in Beijing, Nov. 18, 2013.

A court in Beijing Tuesday gave Chinese property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who once referred to China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, as a “clown,” an 18-year prison sentence and a fine of $620,000 after finding him guilty of corruption, bribery, embezzlement of public funds and abuse of power as an executive of a state-owned enterprise.

Some Chinese dissidents called the verdict “shameless” and a “political persecution” while observers, with whom VOA spoke, said the ruling aims to silence dissidents and members in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who are critical of Xi – a sign that also underscores the lack of confidence in his rule.

“This is an example to show that there’s an undercurrent in the party opposing Xi Jinping. And Xi Jinping is trying to do anything [he can] to suppress, to prevent those, who oppose him, from coming together,” Yang Jianli, a Chinese dissident who now lives in the U.S. and is president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, told VOA before the ruling.

Charges against Ren

According to a statement released by Beijing’s No.2 Intermediate People’s Court, Ren was found to be corrupt and to have received an illicit gain of nearly $7.4 million, taken $184,500 in bribes and embezzled $8.9 million in public funds between 2003 and 2017, when he served as the chairman of state-owned property developer Huayuan Real Estate Group.

The court also found Ren abused his executive power, causing nearly $17 million in losses for those state-owned companies in exchange for his personal gain of almost $3 million.

The statement added that Ren pleaded guilty, returned his illicit gains and agreed not to appeal upon hearing his verdict.

An escorted police van believed to be carrying Huayuan Real Estate Group former chairman Ren Zhiqiang leaves Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court, where Ren faces corruption trial, in Beijing, China, Sept. 11, 2020.

Known as a member of the powerful so-called Red Second Generation, Ren, 69, is the son of a former deputy commerce minister. He became known in recent years for speaking up about media censorship and other sensitive topics in China.

Outspoken critic of Xi

Ren was detained under criminal investigation in March, shortly after his private comments that criticized China’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak went viral online.

In a scathing essay, Ren didn’t specify a name but appeared to call Xi “a clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being emperor.”

The court’s verdict on Ren sparked an outcry among dissidents and observers in China and abroad.

Li Datong, founding editor of the China Youth Daily’s Freezing Point weekly, called it a “shameless” persecution.

When Ren stepped down from his chairmanship at Huayuan in 2011, “the government’s audit body had closely scrutinized the company’s financial accounts [under Ren’s leadership], which it found flawless…This [verdict] is a slap on the government’s own face,” Li told VOA over the phone.

Li said that he believes Ren pleaded guilty because his son was held hostage by authorities, adding those four charges against Ren were false.

He called Ren an outspoken critic who speaks the mind of the Chinese people.

Ren “is someone who dares to talk about what’s on people’s mind. He poses no threat to anyone and no organizations would be toppled because of [free] speech. He did nothing but speaking the mind of the people, which somehow isn’t tolerated by the authorities,” he added.

Wang Dan, former Tiananmen Square protest student leader, tweeted that the sentence is so heavy that Ren is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

FILE - Veteran Chinese dissident Wang Dan pauses during a press conference in Tokyo, Japan, May 29, 2019.

“It shows that the Communist Party would only hit its own comrades harder,” Wang wrote, criticizing Xi as “someone who is too insecure to tolerate any criticism. The Communist party’s future will be bathed in blood.”

Rising public grievance?

Tseng Chien-yuan, chairman of Taipei-based New School for Democracy, argued that it remains to be seen if the verdict would backfire and trigger public grievance, since Ren has garnered a high level of support among the public and even a certain degree of sympathy among like-minded members in the party.

“The fact that the Communist Party gave him such a heavy sentence further reflects a lack of confidence in the regime’s stability. Hence, it is using such a heavy sentence to send a warning or intimidate dissidents,” Tseng told VOA over the phone.

Chilling effect?

Tseng noted that Ren’s case would certainly create a chilling effect among Chinese dissidents, but it may also trigger “political panic” among those as outspoken as Ren, who will likely put their own interests before those of the party.

“That will then set the beginning of the collapsing confidence in the Chinese regime,” he added.

Leo Lan, research & advocacy consultant of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), agreed that Ren’s verdict will have an immediate impact on the wealthy, along with outspoken businesspeople and party members.

And “it looks like Xi Jinping wants to maintain its heavy-handed approach to crack down on dissenting views,” Lan told VOA in a written reply, adding, “We now need to see how the party elites react. Some party elites might still fight back.”