Many Chinese online opinion leaders and celebrities were silenced following the ‘crackdown on rumors’ in 2013 and netizens have became less vocal in speaking out against the disappearance of dissenters on social media, seeing the repression of dissidents as a part of the new political order under President Xi Jinping.
Yet the recent suppression of property mogul Ren Zhiqiang has caught many by surprise as Ren is “a second generation red”, whose father was a recognised communist, and is considered both a patriot and a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) loyalist.
Ren had earned the nickname “the Cannon” or “China’s Donald Trump” for his provocative opinions and blunt criticism of government policies.
His Weibo account, which had more than 37 million followers, was shut down at the end of February after he dared to comment on Xi's media policy that demanded party loyalty from all state media.
The case has thus become a political thermometer on Xi's attitudes towards internal ideological differences inside the party, with the silencing of Ren raising the question of whether anyone can truly be deemed safe from future political purges.
Before the Cyberspace Administration of China ordered major social media portals including Sina and Tencent to delete Ren's account, Ren had already become the target of a smear campaign directed by Qianlong, a news outlet working under the direct supervision of the propaganda department of the Beijing CCP committee.
One article, headlined “Who gave Ren the confidence to oppose the Party?”, labelled the businessman as anti-party and accused him of making capitalist arguments and pursuing Western constitutionalism.
Another scolded him for failing to defend the interests of the Communist Party and warned that “any attempt to provoke a disturbance and stir up hate will encounter the people’s opposition, and netizens’ teaching him a lesson in Communism is the best proof.”
Yet another top-level party magazine, Red Flag Manuscript, accused Ren and two others of spreading “anti-party” speech via Weibo.
Political labels such as “anti-party”, coupled with the threat that people would “teach him a lesson” are eerily evocative of the political purges during the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 and raged for a decade before Chairman Mao Zedong's death.
A big man with a big mouth
Born in 1951, Ren Zhiqiang is different from most dissenters in 21st century China.
Like Xi Jinping, his parents are first generation CCP members.
His father Ren Quansheng was China's Vice Minister of Commerce in 1970s, while Ren Zhiqiang served as a platoon leader in the People’s Liberation Army from 1969 to 1981 before going into construction with the state.
From 1993-2014 he was president of the important real estate-focussed Huayuan Group Corporation.
As a property tycoon, Ren enjoyed making comment about the real estate market on social media.
In 2009, his comment that “anyone who can’t afford a house in the city should go back to the countryside” attracted significant criticism, and he had shoes lobbed in his direction at a real estate association meeting in 2010.
In recent years, he has branched out into politics.
When delivering a speech at Beijing University in 2013, he urged students to push down the wall and rebuild a democratic socialist system. The comment saw him labelled a western constitutionalist by party mouthpieces.
Last year, when he attended the annual meeting of the top 50 Chinese economists, he warned the party against strong-arm policies on dissent and western values and expressed concerns over the potential return of the Cultural Revolution.
In September Ren wrote articles on his Weibo to denounce the communist slogan “Being Ready for Communist Successors” issued by the Communist Youth League, accusing the League of having cheated him for decades and continuing to fool youth.
On October 1, Chinese National Day, he said on Weibo that the date did not mark the birth of a nation but a new communist government, which was formed on that date back in 1949.
Although technically correct, his comment was interpreted as a gesture to separate the party and the state, a recipe for political trouble.
Ren's criticism of Xi's media policy appears to have been the final straw.
Don't let a hundred flowers bloom
There is no secret that within the CCP, there are significant disagreements on the political transformations affecting China.
Some are constitutionalists, advocating more internal party-democracy, while others believe in Maoist centralisation of power.
To prevent inner party struggle, a new set of CCP member disciplinary rules was announced on October 22, 2015, which specifies that the “improper discussion of central government policy” could result in members being expelled from the party.
Some anticipate that Ren will be expelled from the CCP for his critical remarks.
However, such a decision would not be welcomed by all.
Tsai Xia, a professor from the Central Party School pointed out the handling of Ren's case would have a bearing on over 80 million party members:
How to handle Ren Zhiqiang's comment affects not only Ren. It is directly linked to whether the rights of more than 80 million members can be properly protected […] To create a democratic atmosphere where 80 million plus members can voice their thoughts is the right way to love and protect the party. Political labels obstruct free speech and harm the party. Shouldn't party-affiliated websites and magazines be reflecting upon what it is doing now?
Tsai Xia has since been advised not to make further comment on Ren while top authorities have reportedly ordered the West District Party Commission of Beijing to take further action against Ren.
There has been no official confirmation of the property magnate's fate, however.