Retired property developer Ren Zhiqiang is known as “the Cannon” in China because of his outspoken criticism of the Communist party and government policies, says the Financial Times. Some have even labelled him “China’s Donald Trump”. His blogs are clearly compelling. Until being “muzzled” by the authorities last week, Ren had 38 million followers on China’s Twitter equivalent, Weibo – among the largest in the nation.
Ren’s “crime”, according to the Cyberspace Administration of China, was publishing “illegal messages that had a bad impact”. Specifically, he had challenged President Xi’s recent exhortation to the Chinese media to focus on “positive” reporting and to “speak the Party’s will and protect the Party’s authority and unity”.
Why should taxpayers’ money be spent on pushing Party propaganda, asked Zhiqiang. The tweet was subsequently deleted, says The Hong Kong Free Press. But within days, state mouthpieces were accusing him of advocating the overthrow of the Communist Party. The general feeling in China is that he was lucky to have got away with just having his Weibo account closed – worse may follow.
Ren is undoubtedly controversial. In 2010 China Daily reported that he was paid the highest salary of anyone in the country’s 258 listed companies that had filed annual reports. And he has “previously drawn fire” for calling the state-run broadcaster, CCTV, “the dumbest pig on earth” (it had reported that his company, Huayuan Real Estate, owed ¥54.9bn in unpaid tax). His blunt statements defending inequalities and the high price of real estate once “angered an audience member so much that they threw a shoe at him”.
But the strange thing about Ren is that, unlike many of China’s tycoons, he is actually a member of the party, says the FT. A former People’s Liberation Army soldier, he spent most of his earlier career working for a developer controlled by the Beijing municipal government. “His outburst, therefore, says more about tensions within the party than it does about a showdown between the party and the private sector.”
That hasn’t stopped “China’s already nervy tycoons” being spooked by this latest debacle. “It’s Cultural Revolution-type stuff,” said one attendee at a gathering of billionaire entrepreneurs, “fixated by the evolving drama.” The episode has shocked some of the country’s richest even more than the brief detention in December of the tycoon Guo Guangchang.
The silencing of Ren has echoes of the recent episode that “shook Hong Kong” when five booksellers were taken to the mainland by Chinese security agents, accused of smuggling critical political works into China.
Beijing’s “intensifying efforts to rein in public discourse” are seen by many Chinese as an attempt by Xi “to consolidate his power and silence critics at a time when the world’s second-largest economy is decelerating”, says The Wall Street Journal. Journalists and academics say the environment for speech is the “tightest” it’s been for decades. This is probably “just the beginning”, says Qiao Mu of Beijing Foreign Studies University. Keep an eye out on what happens to Ren.