Tycoon Ren Zhiqiang Under Investigation After Attack on Epidemic Handling

Outspoken property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang went missing nearly four weeks ago, soon after the online circulation of an essay attributed to him which sharply attacked the official handling of the COVID-19 epidemic and especially the role of top leader Xi Jinping. This week, Ren was revealed to be under investigation by disciplinary inspectors. From Chun Han Wong at The Wall Street Journal:

In a statement Tuesday, a Beijing district branch of the Communist Party’s disciplinary agency said Mr. Ren was being investigated by party and government inspectors for allegedly committing serious violations of party discipline and the law. Chinese officials have often used this vague phrasing when referring to corruption cases. The statement didn’t give details about the allegations against Mr. Ren.

The announcement marked the first official acknowledgment of Mr. Ren’s case since he disappeared in mid-March, soon after Mr. Xi visited the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic first erupted, in a trip widely seen by ordinary Chinese as a declaration of initial victory in the country’s fight against the coronavirus.

Mr. Ren, a 69-year-old former chairman of a state-owned property company, couldn’t be reached for comment. His mobile phone has been switched off, and friends said they started realizing that Mr. Ren couldn’t be contacted from around March 12.

Friends and China political observers believe the probe against Mr. Ren was prompted by a critical essay friends say he wrote that appeared to call Mr. Xi a “clown,” while attacking the leader’s domineering style and intolerance for dissent. [Source]

CDT posted translated excerpts from the essay last month, but a full translation has now been published by “You Shu” at credibletarget.net. The text, which Ren reportedly shared only with a few close associates before one of them distributed it more widely, is so bluntly worded that there was initial skepticism about its authorship, even given Ren’s reputation for outspokenness. In it, he writes that “the explosion of China’s Wuhan coronavirus epidemic completely validated the reality” of his warnings in 2016 that “‘when the media is surnamed ‘Party’…the people are abandoned.'” This earlier protest led to the closure of his Weibo account, which had had over 35 million followers. The “stern investigation and punishment of Ren Zhiqiang’s public voicing of wrong remarks” was later hailed by Beijing disciplinary officials as one of their key achievements for the year.

In the recent essay, Ren targets a speech Xi gave to an online audience of 170,000 officials on February 23. Sharply rejecting the orthodox portrayal of Xi as central to vanquishing the virus, Ren describes him as an emperor in fictitious “new clothes,” and accuses him of taking credit for resolving a crisis of his government’s own making. He praises, by contrast, the handling of the crisis in nearby countries like Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, and attributes progress against the outbreak in Wuhan not to core leadership but to “all different types of social groups and private businesses taking the initiative,” adding that “if there wasn’t all this social support and charitable activity, this government wouldn’t have made it through to today!”

In the whole speech, from start to finish, all I can see are lies being used as loincloth, attempts to cover up the fact that that he himself is not wearing any clothes. When he’s trying to prove that he’s a wise and great leader, it’s clear that he’s already incapable of giving any plausible explanation. The more he blows, the higher the loincloth flutters, the more he lays bare his fear and naked ambition to protect imperial power. Maybe all these slogans and classical aphorisms might boost the morale of lots of people, but smart folk can all see behind these beautiful ornaments, it’s him not taking any responsibility for the outbreak of the virus and the leadership mistakes, in actual fact, it’s preparation to use all the effort and lives of the entire nation to pay for the “victory” of the epidemic fight and paint it as his own heroic victory, it’s preparation to accept the whole country cheering “Ten Thousand Years!” as the result of the war.

China’s ruling party hid the reasons for the original outbreak of the virus, then relied upon state power to quarantine the cities, it cheated the World Health Organization to gain its trust, and it even won the praise of the international community. But having lived through this, the Chinese people are not so easily lied to again. Maybe people who live in countries with freedom of expression don’t know the pain of living in a country without a free media or freedom of expression, but the Chinese people have the pain of knowing that the virus outbreak and everything that came after should never have happened, that it’s all because of a system which strictly bans a free media and freedom of expression. [Source]

At The Washington Post on Wednesday, Adam Taylor looked at efforts from some Chinese news outlets to defy these restrictions in the face of the epidemic

“The truth is that the Chinese Communist Party leadership regards any reporting of the facts as ultimately a threat to the stability of the regime,” said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project.

[…] The early weeks of China’s outbreak saw a remarkable push by independent journalists. Yuan Zeng, a scholar at the University of Leeds, pointed to a variety of outlets like China Youth Daily, YiMagazine and Sanlian Lifeweek that published investigative reports that scrutinized the official version of events.

[…] Those who track Chinese journalism now think the state has clamped down again. “At this point, most of the critical or investigative reporting on this topic has been silenced,” said Maria Repnikova, a Georgia State University professor, who predicted such a clampdown in early February. [Repnikova commented further on Twitter.]

[…] It is remarkable that China’s independent journalists can operate under such conditions, let alone still publish groundbreaking work. “What’s frustrating is what they could do if they weren’t constrained,” [Sinocism’s Bill] Bishop said. “You can see glimpses of the awesome potential.” [Source]

Taylor focuses closely on the work of Caixin, whose four reporters in Wuhan throughout the city’s eleven-week lockdown recently described the “mix of excitement, fear and journalistic responsibility” they felt during the experience.

Ren’s disappearance and now investigation suggest that China’s government is less receptive than ever to calls for free speech like those circulated after the death of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang. Authorities have since sought to co-opt Li’s legacy, emphasizing his Party membership and hailing him as a martyr, while eliding his view that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.” Gerry Shih focused on this context in his report on news of the investigation at The Washington Post on Tuesday:

In recent weeks, China’s propaganda machinery has gone into overdrive to portray the government’s response to the epidemic as heroic in an effort to recover the party’s public standing, which plummeted in February amid reports that officials had covered up the emerging crisis and detained doctors in Wuhan who released information about the discovery of the novel coronavirus.

Eight years into Xi’s administration, the government’s suppression of free speech and its demand for ideological conformity and exclusively positive media coverage — formally dubbed “spreading positive energy” — have become a source of discontent and private ridicule among some business elite and intellectuals.

On Wednesday, many mourned Ren’s apparent downfall. Li Weidong, the former editor in chief of China Reform magazine, said that silencing Ren was the kind of political logic that exacerbated the viral outbreak in the first place.

“I hope the Chinese Communist Party realizes that such party members who dare to tell the truth are needed in the party,” Li said. “If you shut up the few brave enough to speak the truth, disaster will descend. Are the lessons from Wuhan’s mistakes still not profound enough?” [Source]

Ren has not been alone in attacking Xi over the epidemic: other examples include essays from rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong and suspended Tsinghua professor Xu Zhangrun. But Ren’s position and influence set his critique apart. In his Sinocism newsletter on March 31, Bill Bishop commented that “Ren was part of a group of elite Beijingers who thrived in the previous Era […] and his fate resonates in elite circles I think much more than Tsinghua University’s Xu Zhangrun does.”

The New York Times’ Li Yuan discussed Ren’s unusual status last week in a piece describing his disappearance—together with those of his assistant and his son—as “a blow to the nation’s future”:

Yu Zhengsheng, a former member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, […] wrote that he had first noticed Mr. Ren at a conference in 1998, when the latter attacked a new housing policy.

“As one of the people who proposed the policy, I of course disagreed with him,” Mr. Yu wrote. “But his candid remarks and philosophical argument left a deep impression on me. After the meeting, I told relevant comrades that they shouldn’t be repulsed by his remarks and should study the reasonable parts of his argument.”

Mr. Ren won respect from government officials because they came to believe his criticisms were made in good faith. Dissent, he often told others, is the highest form of patriotism.

“I believe Ren Zhiqiang is 90 percent like us,” wrote Ning Gaoning, a respected executive who has run some of China’s biggest state-run conglomerates, in the introduction for Mr. Ren’s 2013 autobiography. “The other 10 percent of his brain is made up of something different from us.”

[…] “State power in any country is greedy, so it needs to be subject to public supervision,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Otherwise, the power will be abused and everybody will suffer from it.” [Source]

At China Media Project, meanwhile, Qian Gang focused on an example from the opposite end of the Party spectrum to Ren. Qian saw echoes of Cultural Revolution loyalty dances in the sycophancy of Shandong’s provincial Party secretary Liu Jiayi, who has emphasized “loyalty to the Party [and] loyalty to the General Secretary,” and described Xi as “the staunch core, wise leader and great commander.” With authorities generally (though not universally) wary of overly effusive praise that might backfire or cloak criticism, Qian notes, Liu is for now an outlier:

So far, Liu Jiayi is in a league of his own when it comes to dancing the loyalty dance. Since January 2020, the country has focused on fighting the coronavirus. When we search newspapers over the past few months, we find Liu is the only leader in the country openly signalling loyalty to Xi Jinping. Liu’s remarks appeared only in Dazhong Daily, Shandong’s official Party mouthpiece, the newspaper directly under Secretary Liu’s thumb, and a few other local Party papers – though they were included in several online sources (including on the People’s Daily news app, shown below).

These days, there are no signs anywhere else in China’s official Party media of phrases of obeisance such as “loyal to General Secretary Xi” (对习总书记忠诚), “loyal to General Secretary Xi Jinping” (对习近平总书记忠诚), “loyal to the General Secretary” (忠诚于总书记), “treating General Secretary Xi with loyalty” (忠诚于习总书记) and so on.

In this “New Era,” will the loyalty dance become as popular as it was during the Cultural Revolution? As we observe Chinese politics, this is another interesting question to bear in mind, looking for signs of the dance in the ever-shifting discourse of the Party. [Source]


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