Ren Zhiqiang, a prominent real estate tycoon and a vocal critic of the Communist Party leadership, has been expelled from the party and is expected to face criminal charges, Chinese authorities announced late on Thursday.
Ren had been at odds with the party’s leadership on “issues of principles” and had published articles against “the Four Cardinal Principles”, a reference to the unchallenged leadership status of the CCP, according to an announcement by the Xicheng district committee of discipline inspection in Beijing.
While Ren’s whereabouts are not known, his friends said that the tycoon was taken away from his sister’s home in Beijing by the party’s anti-graft officials in March.
Despite his party membership, he was a long-standing critic of the CCP, and has earned the nickname “Ren the Big Cannon” for his bold criticism.
His most recent article, circulating on the internet since March, was critical not only of the initial missteps of the government in handling the coronavirus outbreak but also of the ways Beijing has sought to promote its successes and President Xi Jinping’s expansion of power.
While Ren did not mention Xi by name, he made references to an “emperor” and a “helmsman” who personally directed China’s fight against Covid-19 in his article.
Ren, who until 2011 was chairman and party chief of the Huayuan Group, a state-owned enterprise based in Beijing, was accused of using public money for personal purposes – such as golf club membership and expensive dining – and causing “huge losses” to the state, according to the committee, a party disciplinary watchdog.
The announcement did not elaborate on the accusations.
Ren moved on in 2011 to head the Shanghai-listed Huayuan Property Company until 2014. More than 40 per cent of the company’s stocks are held by the state-owned Huayuan Group.
Ren was also accused of “vilifying” the image of the Communist Party and the state, and being “dishonest” during the party’s internal investigations.
Friends say they lost contact with Ren in March and the following month the party’s top anti-corruption watchdog announced he was under investigation.
He had spent most of his time in the past three years in his home at Beijing under heavy surveillance before he was taken away, according to friends.
His “illegal gains” have been confiscated and evidence has been sent to prosecutors for further investigation, according to the announcement.
Friends close to the tycoon’s family said that Dong Guoqiang, a close associate of Ren’s and founder of a leading auction house was also under investigation – a sign other business people with ties to Ren could be targeted by the authorities.
Wu Qiang, a Beijing-based independent political analyst, said: “The statement made it very clear that [his crimes] were basically about making unfounded criticism of the party, malicious attacks against the leadership,” Wu said.
“This [statement] is essentially denying the rights of party members to criticise [party leaders]. This is the most important point.”
Wu pointed out that the announcement followed a meeting between Xi and a number of the country’s top entrepreneurs on Tuesday during which the president called on the businessmen to be “more patriotic” and shoulder greater “social responsibility”.
“I believe these two [events] are related .... and Xi’s meeting with the business leaders was meant to reassure them that whatever treatment Ren received would not affect the entrepreneurs,”said the former political science lecturer at Tsinghua University.
Ren was born into a revolutionary family, and his father Ren Quansheng was a former vice-minister of commerce. With his family connections and wealth, Ren was considered to be influential in elite political and business circles.
Media reports and memoirs have documented his friendships with senior Chinese officials, some of whom had contributed prologues to books he has published.
The 69-year-old was until 2013 a member of the Beijing municipal committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
As a businessman, he frequently spoke out against a wide range of government policies. In 2016, he openly challenged Xi’s view that state media should be aligned to the party.
Shortly afterwards his Weibo account, which had 37 million followers, was closed.
“This last is important. Even in corporate environments, it is very difficult to remove an underling for incompetence if that underling has seniority and a long history of good performance reviews. As in government bureaucracies, the easiest way to deal with such people is often to “kick them upstairs”: promote them to a higher post, where they become somebody else’s problem.”