Ren Zhiqiang, a Chinese billionaire is widely known to be a staunch critic of President Xi Jinping, has been handed an 18-year prison sentence, according to a statement from the Chinese intermediate court.
Ren, a retired real estate tycoon, had penned down a critical essay way back in March, criticizing the country’s top leader’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He was never seen in public again after his widely-circulated essay was published, arousing fears from friends and family who were unable to contact him.
Ren had been charged with corruption-related offenses in April. He was accused of embezzling public funds running into $16.3 million (110.6 million yuan), accepting bribes, abusing his powers, and causing the state-owned property company which he once headed to run into losses of about $17.2 million. On Tuesday, the court found him guilty of all corruption charges brought against him.
Asides an 18-year sentence handed over to him, Ren is to pay a fine of $600,000 (4.2 million yuan). Making its verdict known to the public, the court authorities said the 69-year old “voluntarily and truthfully confessed all his crimes” and “was willing to accept the court’s verdict,” closing all hopes of an appeal.
Human rights observers have repeatedly accused President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party of using corruption charges to go after dissenting voices criticizing the party and its leadership.
Many observers see this current ruling as a way to send a strong message to party faithful and other members of the Chinese elites that the Xi’s regime will not tolerate dissenting voices.
Ren Zhiqiang, the former chairman of Huayuan, a state-owned real estate company, has been a staunch critic of the Xi administration. He was born into the Communist Party’s ruling elite. He had often made scathing remarks in the past that observers said will come with its consequences in the authoritarian state.
His steady onslaught against the Chinese ruling elite earned him the moniker “The Cannon” across the Chinese social media.
Back in March, Ren had published an acerbic essay criticizing the party’s offensive against dissenting voices and its clampdown on press freedom. Although his essay did not call Xi by name, it had subtly referred to the country’s supreme leader as a power-hungry “clown.”
“I saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes’, but a clown who stripped off his clothes and insisted on continuing being an emperor,” Ren wrote, in response to Xi’s address to 170,000 officials all over the country via teleconference on February 23, in the wake of the coronavirus.
He accused the party of defending its interests, way above the interests of the general public, in order to continue its hold on power.
This was not the first time Ren had publicly lashed out at the ruling party. In 2016, in his trademark approach to public discourse, he had criticized a policy that demanded that the state-owned media must stay loyal to the party.
His actions did not go unnoticed. The party promptly disciplined him. He was placed on one-year probation, and his account on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, was shut down.
And now, it seems President Xi Jinping has had enough. For Ren, there would be no second chance to redeem himself. He will be well into his late 80s if he serves his full prison sentence.
Since Xi took over power in 2012, he has steadily cracked down on opposition, tightening press freedom while imprisoning a number of human activists and lawyers in the communist state.