A real estate tycoon who publicly criticized Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership over the government’s handling of the Wuhan coronavirus has reportedly gone missing.
Ren Zhiqiang, whose outspoken comments on social media had earned him the nickname “the cannon,” wrote in a recent essay that supreme leader Xi Jinping is a power-hungry “clown” and that the CCP’s strict limits on free speech had only made a bad situation worse.
Friends of Ren told the South China Morning Post in a March 15 report that they are concerned about his whereabouts after losing contact with him for several days.
“I haven’t been able to reach Ren Zhiqiang since Thursday night … it’s been over 72 hours already,” Wang Ying, an entrepreneur and friend, said. “The disappearance of Ren as a public figure is known to many. Organizations responsible should say what happened as soon as possible.”
Ren, who until 2013 was a member of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, had been under surveillance by authorities for the past four years, but had always been able to talk to his friends, Wang said.
Ren’s disappearance comes as the Chinese government has sought to quash criticism of its slow, secretive initial response to the epidemic, which has killed over 3,100 people in China and sickened more than 80,000.
The CCP has employed the nation’s propaganda outlets to portray Xi as a hero who is leading the “people’s war” against the virus.
As public anger over the government’s early efforts to conceal the crisis gained steam, Ren’s essay was circulated in China and abroad. In it, he blamed the communist government for silencing whistleblowers and attempting to conceal the outbreak, which began in Wuhan in December.
“I see not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing to be an emperor,” Ren wrote.
Addressing Xi, he wrote: “You don’t in the slightest hide your resolute ambition to be an emperor and your determination to destroy anyone who won’t let you.”
In 2016, the CCP placed him Ren on a year’s probation for denouncing Xi’s insistence that China’s media serve only the Communist Party’s agenda. The government has reportedly monitored Ren’s movements intensely ever since, preventing him from leaving the country and deleting his social media accounts, where he had built a wide following.
Xu Zhangrun, a law professor in Beijing, published an essay last month saying that the epidemic had “revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance.”
Xu Zhiyong, a prominent legal activist, was detained after releasing a letter to Xi on social media, accusing the Chinese leader of a cover-up and calling on him to step down.
Activists said Ren’s disappearance was a worrying sign that the government was escalating its latest crackdown on free speech.
“The epidemic has brought out the worst of Xi Jinping,” said Yang Jianli, a rights activist based in the United States. “He is so determined not to give an inch, rightly understanding an inch would mean hundreds of miles.”