Ren Zhiqiang, the property tycoon nicknamed “Big Cannon,” was notorious for his blunt criticisms of the Communist Party, and yet his wealth and political connections long seemed to shield him from severe punishment. Until now.
A court in Beijing sentenced Mr. Ren to 18 years in prison on Tuesday. The court said he was guilty of graft, taking bribes, misusing public funds and abusing his power during and after his time as an executive at a property development company.
Mr. Ren’s supporters and sympathizers said that his real crime was criticizing the Communist Party and calling the country’s hard-line leader, Xi Jinping, a “clown.”
“Very clearly this was punishment for his words, that’s going to be obvious to everyone,” Guo Yuhua, a sociologist in Beijing, said by telephone. “Those economic problems — this one, that one — can be concocted whenever you want.”
Mr. Ren’s punishment has underlined how far Mr. Xi has rolled back allowances for dissent, even from members of the elite like Mr. Ren, a scion of a Communist family and former friend of senior officials. His supporters also see the long prison term as a warning to others, especially elites, who may be thinking about openly challenging the party and Mr. Xi.
“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.
At 69, Mr. Ren is old enough that he could spend the rest of his life in prison unless his sentence is reduced.
So far, the Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court has issued few details of the evidence that it said proved Mr. Ren had illegally enriched himself by about $2.9 million between 2003 and 2017. The official summary of the court’s judgment said that his abuses had led Chinese state-owned companies to lose around $17 million. The court said that he had “fully admitted to the facts of all the crimes and willingly accepted the court’s judgment.”
But his case was cloaked in secrecy, and the court’s decision was swift by the standards of politically sensitive cases that come before China’s party-controlled courts. The court did not say when Mr. Ren’s trial took place, but supporters said the court posted an announcement that his trial was to be held on Sept. 11. The news of his sentence was downplayed by Chinese state-run news outlets, which mostly carried the court’s statement.
“This is political persecution, plain and simple,” Ms. Cai said. “He was already audited when he retired, and then repeatedly checked again in 2016.”
Mr. Ren retired from the Huayuan company in 2014. He waded into political hot water in 2016, when he scoffed at Mr. Xi’s call for Chinese journalists to staunchly follow the Communist Party. But at the time the party’s punishment was relatively light: it put Mr. Ren on probation and he received a round of censuring by the state news media.
This time, Mr. Ren was detained in March after he criticized Mr. Xi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak that spread across China and then the world from late last year. In an essay that spread on the internet, he said the officials’ mishandling of the outbreak — including stifling information about initial infections — vindicated his 2016 warning against stifling public criticism.
After citing a February speech in which Mr. Xi defended the party’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, Mr. Ren wrote, “Standing there was not an emperor showing off his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown stripped of his clothes who still insisted on being emperor.”
In July, the Communist Party announced that Mr. Ren had been expelled and that he had been placed under criminal investigation. The party announcement said that Mr. Ren’s misdeeds included using public funds to pay for use of a golf course. But the announcement also singled out Mr. Ren’s opinions, accusing him of distorting party history and being disloyal.
“Ren Zhiqiang lost his ideals and convictions,” the party said. “On major matters of principle, he failed to stay in line with the party’s central authorities.”
While other Chinese people have criticized the Chinese government, and suffered punishment for it, Mr. Ren stood out for his ties to the party establishment and for his willingness as a prominent businessman to bluntly criticize the party.
He came from a family steeped in Communist Party tradition — his father served as a vice minister of commerce — and he was once close to senior party leaders, including Vice President Wang Qishan.
Like many in his generation, Mr. Ren worked in the countryside and then as a soldier before he ventured into business in the 1980s, when China’s market economy was opening under Deng Xiaoping. He made his name and his fortune in real estate, overseeing the Huayuan property company. City authorities in Beijing held a controlling stake in the company, but Mr. Ren left his stamp on it.
He was “confident, decisive, aggressive, like a commanding officer in the military,” a Beijing official-turned-businessman, He Yang, wrote in a memoir shared on the Chinese internet.
Even before he ventured into political debate, Mr. Ren ignited controversy with his public comments on the economy and the housing market. His many profiles in Chinese magazines often mention an incident in 2010 when a man threw a shoe at him while he was attending a real estate forum at a high-end hotel.
Mr. Ren appeared to brush off the criticism, and embraced the opportunities to share his views on the internet.
“What’s most lacking in this society isn’t lies but truth-speaking,” Mr. Ren said in 2013.
Mr. Ren has joined a handful of wealthy and educated Chinese who have spoken out against the party’s expanding power, and have been punished as a result.
Since coming to power in 2012, Mr. Xi has steadily throttled dissent in China, and he has been especially incensed at wayward party members who criticize his policies.
“Never allow eating the Communist Party’s food and then smashing the Communist Party’s cooking pot,” Mr. Xi said in 2014, according to a book collecting his comments on risks to China and the party that was published last month.
This month, the police in Beijing detained Geng Xiaonan, a businesswoman who runs a publishing company. Ms. Geng had supported Xu Zhangrun, a professor of law at the prestigious Tsinghua University, who had condemned Mr. Xi’s hard-line policies in a series of essays.
Mr. Xu was detained by the police for about a week in July, and Ms. Geng had leapt to his defense after investigators said he had used prostitutes, an accusation he vehemently denied.
The police have said that Ms. Geng and her husband were accused of conducting illegal business activities. Their supporters say Ms. Geng was targeted for helping Mr. Xu and other dissenters who have run foul of the party.
Ms. Cai, the former party school professor, was expelled from the Communist Party last month after she scathingly denounced Mr. Xi’s policies in speeches and essays.
For a while after his 2016 censure, Mr. Ren appeared to retreat from public view. He held an exhibition late last year to showcase his new love of artistic carpentry. But as the coronavirus gripped China, Mr. Ren seemed unable to hold back from sharing his scathing criticisms of the government with friends.
Rights activists criticized Mr. Ren’s 18-year sentence as excessive. Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, called it “off-the-charts ruthless” and said the court’s account of Mr. Ren fully capitulating was alarming, as it used language that often indicated that defendants were under immense pressure.
“It rings alarm bells that they are trying to avoid ill-treatment,” Ms. Richardson said, “not that they have become cheerleaders of Xi’s rule by law.”
Amber Wang contributed research.