Tycoon Driven Offline Amid Party Unity Drive

The Cyberspace Administration of China announced on Sunday that it had ordered the closure of retired property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang’s Sina and Tencent Weibo accounts. Ren, who had well over 35 million followers on , was nicknamed “the Cannon” for his unrestrained posting. Though a Party member himself, he recently responded to ’s assertion of Party control over the media by insisting that taxpayer-funded state media should serve the public first. From Xinhua:

“Cyberspace is not a lawless field and it should not be used to spread illegal information by anyone,” said Jiang Jun, spokesperson with the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC).

Ren’s microblog accounts have been closed after netizens reported that he had regularly posted illegal information, “resulting in a vile influence,” according to Jiang.

[…] Jiang called on both the Internet service providers and netizens to enhance awareness and guard “the bottom lines” of laws, the socialist system, the national and citizen’s legal interests, social order, ethics and the authenticity of information.

The celebrity microbloggers as well as bloggers dubbed “Big Vs” for their large number of followers should use their influence correctly, exemplify in observing laws, shoulder their due social responsibilities, and promote “positive energy” actively, Jiang said.

The administration vowed intensified law enforcement efforts in monitoring and managing online information and content, saying that it would not allow the users of the closed accounts to register again under another name. [Source]

Besides the account deletions, according to Fei Chang Dao, Sina blocked searches for Ren’s handle, while Baidu barred the creation of related discussions on its Tieba forum platform.

In October, the Party issued a new internal ban on “improper discussion” of central policy, fueling concern at the dangers of overly centralized and closed-off policymaking. Recent months have seen a succession of calls for members to unite behind “core leader,” Xi Jinping. On Sunday, the Party Central Committee announced a year-long education campaign to promote this goal, Xinhua reports:

The campaign will particularly target Party members with wavering confidence in communism and socialism with Chinese characteristics, as well as those who are advocating the Western value, violating Party rules, working inefficiently or behaving unethically, said the document.

The CPC central authority asked Party committees to regard the campaign as “a major political task.”

Party members should always think and act in comformity with the CPC Central Committee’s policies and guidelines. Meanwhile, they should work hard to serve the people and make contribution to social progress and economic development, according to the document. [Source]

The deletion of Ren’s accounts (and whatever else may follow) is likely meant to set an instructive example. A succession of commentaries in official media had already emphasized his alleged ingratitude, his weak Party spirit, and his poor grasp of fundamental Party theory. Excerpts from four of these pieces are translated at China Change, including this from Wang Dehua at China Youth Daily online:

As a party member, ought to have a deep understanding of the unity between party spirit and the people’s spirit. Our party is of the people and for the people, and it relies on the people. To be part of the party family is to be for the people, so if the media is part of the party family then it, too, is for the people. This is as provided in the PRC constitution. This made-up idea of “two camps”—of opposition between the party and the people—is an attack on the fundamental structure of the Chinese polity.

For Ren Zhiqiang to so brazenly oppose the party’s policies and plans clearly falls under the category of improper discussion of central decisions. To negate the media’s membership in the party family is to eliminate the party’s right to ideological leadership. To concoct this idea of “opposition between party and people” is to break up the revolutionary camp; at its essence, it challenges the party’s legitimacy. The cannons may be pointed at the media’s relationship to the party, but if the media is not part of the party family then, based on the mistakes of the past, China’s collapse will be not far behind. Ren Zhiqiang’s speech threatens the nation’s political security and is a violation of the National Security Law. To tear apart party, government, and people like that is the stuff of Western constitutional democracy. [Source]

A dissenting defense of Ren from Central Party School professor Cai Xia was quickly deleted last week, Amy Li reports at South China Morning Post:

In it, she said the articles attacking Ren violated the party’s constitution, blocked discussion in the party and damaged party solidarity. The article was soon deleted from and online chatrooms.

Cai said the discussion platform within the party was not “sound” and did not allow “smooth” expressions of opinion. As a result, different views were sometimes voiced outside the party.

She said the party’s constitution and regulations clearly ensured Ren’s right to express his opinion, and no person or organisation had the right to deprive of him of it.

Cai said Ren was tagged with a “terrifying political label” when he was only questioning the need for publicly funded media to be loyal to the party. [Source]

A commentary in the state-owned Global Times on Monday picked up the Party line:

Despite Ren being a Party member, he recently argued that “once media start to follow the Party line, … the people will be left to a deserted corner,” and questioned whether taxpayers’ money should be used to promote the government. These remarks put the Party against the people, posing a challenge to the current public media management strategy.

Ren has spoken out this way for a while, benefiting from the fame it brings but taking no responsibilities. He gained over 33 million followers on Weibo, attracted widespread attention and triggered numerous heated debates in the public discourse.

[…] Ren’s unprincipled outspokenness has been tolerated for a while. Such tolerance and inclusiveness is worth encouraging, but whoever crosses the bottom line must face a certain constraint. In his case, there have been debates over whether his outspokenness has crossed the line, but apparently he has given no heed to these warnings. His recent remarks have attracted wide criticism and calls for him to be held accountable.

As a Party member, Ren should have insisted on the constitutional principle of the of China’s leadership. Ren’s case should be interpreted in the right way: The Internet is open, but there is no difference between managing virtual society and the real one. [Source]

South China Morning Post presented some alternative views:

“This is the latest attempt by the authorities to silence critics and those with opposing views,” said Qiao Mu, a communications professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

With the risk of social unrest rising due to the economic downturn, Qiao said authorities were likely to tighten its ideological grip.

Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University, said the tightening controls were a “long-term thing from the perspective of the authority”.

But he said it was hard to say whether the party would give Ren a harsh punishment, because Ren had not committed a crime.

A journalism professor who spoke on condition of anonymity said a harsh action against Ren could trigger a backlash among his supporters within the party.

Qiao said the consequences for the party could be greater than what it hoped to achieve by punishing Ren. [Source]

The Financial Times’ Tom Mitchell reported comments from another prominent commentator:

“[Ren’s comments] represent a sentiment inside the system that has been stored up for a long time and finally erupted,” says Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian and long-time critic of the Communist party. “[State organs] have always served the party but they pretended to serve the people. What’s happening now is that [Mr Xi] has taken away the last fig leaf.”

[…] Mr Zhang notes that by “directly challenging the authority of the top leadership”, a backlash was inevitable in an environment where party members are increasingly expected to demonstrate their loyalty to Mr Xi. He reckons the closure of Mr Ren’s Weibo account was the “lightest” possible punishment, and he could yet be expelled from the party or worse. [Source]

Ren’s removal is particularly notable because he escaped a major campaign against outspoken Big Vs in 2013, and showed little sign of restraint in its aftermath. Late that year, he relayed comments he had made to state broadcaster CCTV on the subject of patriotism:

@任志强: CCTV came to my office on September 28 to interview me. I said, “You won’t broadcast it.” The reporter said, “Yes, we will.” Q: What does it mean to be patriotic? A: To criticize every mistake the government makes so that the people have a better life, more rights, and more freedom. Q: How do you prove your level of patriotism? A: The more you criticize, the deeper your love of country. Forgiving the government for its abuse of power is exactly how not to be patriotic. They didn’t air my comments. [Source]

An apparent retort from one of the CCTV interviewers compared Ren’s attitude with sado-masochism and domestic abuse. The following January, Ren posted after seeing an unrelated news report that “you can’t find a pig dumber than CCTV on the whole earth.”

Early last year, amid an official drive to cleanse higher education of “Western values,” Ren asked in a later deleted blog post: “if our own value systems are superior to Western value systems, if China wishes to see the world accept China’s value system, then why can’t the two value systems be allowed to openly compete on the same platform? Why is it necessary to fear Western value systems?” In October, he questioned the official Party-centric view of China’s history, arguing that “every change in ruler is just a part of the nation’s history—it’s the continuation of history, not a new start.”