Outspoken former property tycoon and longtime Party insider Ren Zhiqiang was sentenced to 18 years in prison on Tuesday. Ren had disappeared in March and was reported to be under investigation, shortly after he wrote and shared a widely circulated essay criticizing top Party leaders and singling out Xi Jinping for his handling of the COVID-19 epidemic. A Beijing court found him guilty of corruption, bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power while an executive at Huayuan, a state-owned real estate development company. The court reported that he would not appeal the court’s decision. For the South China Morning Post, William Zheng reports that Ren’s trial was conducted in heavy secrecy, and that Ren was not allowed legal representation:
Ren chose to defend himself during the September 11 court hearing, according to a source close to his family. The South China Morning Post reported earlier that lawyers hired by the family had not been allowed to meet him before the trial. “He might have chosen to admit to all charges, so as not to implicate others,” the source said.
Ren’s trial was secretive with a heavy security presence. Both plain-clothed and uniformed police officers could be seen from early morning until late afternoon at the court building on the day of the hearing. Diplomats from Australia, the European Union, Japan and the US were not granted approval to sit in the courtroom, according to a diplomatic source.
A Beijing-based lawyer familiar with corruption cases said Ren’s sentencing had been “on a fast track” compared to others.
“Normally, it will take years to complete a corruption investigation and start prosecution. Some cases even last over four-five years. But Ren’s investigation only lasted six months. Obviously things are moving very fast on Ren’s case.” [Source]
Ren’s sentence is significant because he has long been a member of the Party’s elite, and is close to many of Xi Jinping’s closest allies. Aged 69, Ren is old enough that the sentence could mean he will spend the rest of his life in prison, unless his sentence is commuted.
For The New York Times in March, Li Yuan wrote about Ren’s close connections with the highest echelons of the Party:
Like Mr. Xi, Mr. Ren was born into party royalty. His father was a deputy commerce minister. His mother went to school with the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung, who held him in a photo when he was a baby, according to his social media posts and media interviews.
He was also well connected. He has been friends with Vice President Wang Qishan of China since he was in junior high. Mr. Ren wrote in his 2013 autobiography that Mr. Wang would sometimes call him late in the evening and chat for hours.
Mr. Ren hired Liu He, China’s main negotiator in the trade war with the United States, as a part-time researcher when Mr. Liu was a graduate student. Yu Zhengsheng, a former member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, its highest ruling body, worked with Mr. Ren when he was the construction minister and wrote the introduction of Mr. Ren’s first book in 2002. [Source]
But unlike most Party insiders, Ren stood out for his willingness to be publicly and bluntly critical of the CCP’s governance. The Washington Post’s Eva Dou reported on his history of criticizing the Party:
Several times in the past, he clashed with the party without serious consequences. In 2014, he called the official broadcaster CCTV “the dumbest pig on Earth,” and two years later, he publicly challenged Xi’s declaration that state-run media should toe the party line. [Source]
However, it was Ren’s essay in response to Xi Jinping’s February 23rd address to Party cadres on the coronavirus that led authorities to turn their attention to him. CDT previously translated excerpts of the essay:
[…] This outbreak of the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic has verified the reality: when all media took on the “surname of the Party” the people “were abandoned” indeed [a reference to a forecast Ren made in his response to Xi’s declaration that the media should “bear the Party surname”]. Without a media representing the interests of the people by publishing the actual facts, the people’s lives are being ravaged by both the virus and the major illness of the system.
[…] I too am curiously and conscientiously studying [Xi’s teleconferenced February 23] speech, but what I saw in it was the complete opposite of the “importance” reported by all types of media and online. I saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his “new clothes,” but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor. Despite holding a series of loincloths up in an attempt to cover the reality of your nakedness, you don’t in the slightest hide your resolute ambition to be an emperor, or the determination to let anyone who won’t let you be destroyed. [Source]
The severity of the sentence has surprised many of those who followed the case:
WOW gloves are coming off against Beijing elite. Ren Zhiqiang sentenced for 18 years aka life. Wow. https://t.co/dojElyeJz4
— Gerry Shih (@gerryshih) September 22, 2020
China Jails Outspoken Tycoon Ren Zhiqiang for 18 Years / wow very harsh sentence for an influential contemporary of Xi https://t.co/KrGQ5Y6GfM
— Victor Shih (@vshih2) September 22, 2020
Confirmed. Feels like the end of an era. https://t.co/KkZAjl4Rok
— Matt Sheehan (@mattsheehan88) September 22, 2020
The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong reported on how Ren’s conviction is intended to serve as a warning to other Party elites who might be thinking of openly challenging the current leadership:
“They are killing a bull for the cattle to see,” said a retired politics professor in Beijing. Given Mr. Ren’s pedigree as a son of a former senior official, Mr. Xi likely hopes that imprisoning him will deter other outspoken members of the party elite, the professor said. [Source]
It also serves as a warning to other prominent elites who have fallen afoul of Xi Jinping after criticizing him in recent years, including Xu Zhangrun, a former Tsinghua University law professor, and Cai Xia, a retired professor of the elite Central Party School. (CDT translated a speech by Cai in which she accused Xi of turning the CCP into a “political zombie.”) The New York Times’ Chris Buckley covered Cai’s reaction to Ren’s sentence:
“Cracking down on Ren Zhiqiang, using economic crimes to punish him, is a warning to others — killing one to warn a hundred,” said Cai Xia, an acquaintance of Mr. Ren’s who formerly taught at the Central Party School, which trains rising officials.
“It’s a warning to the whole party and especially to red offspring,” Ms. Cai said, referring to the children of party officials. She spoke before the court’s judgment in a telephone interview from the United States, where she now lives. [Source]
For much more on Ren Zhiqiang in Chinese, please see this CDT Chinese post.