Elite Chinese Dissident Shows Limits to Xi’s Power

‘Big Cannon’ tweaks chairman’s nose

The investigation of Ren Zhiqiang, a Red aristocrat and critic of Chinese President Xi Jinping, highlights the limits of Xi’s power and threatens to tarnish the reputation of Xi and China in the global pandemic. Although Ren has been out of contact since March after implying Xi was a “naked clown,” he is unlikely to face the kind of punishment meted out to less well-connected critics.

“Xi knows fairly well if Ren was given too heavy a penalty, the entire Red second generation would be alienated,” Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based current affairs commentator, told Asia Sentinel.

Ren’s father Ren Quansheng was a Vice Minister of Commerce while his mother was a local official of Beijing, where Ren Zhiqiang resides. Ren junior, a member of the Chinese Communist Party, went to school with Wang Qishan, who headed a Chinese anti-corruption agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), from November 2012 to October 2017. As a sign of Ren’s close friendship with the Chinese vice president, Ren wrote in his 2013 autobiography that Wang would call him and chat with him for hours.

Ironically, it was the CCDI, formerly helmed by Wang, which announced on April 7 that Ren was under investigation by the authorities of Xicheng district in Beijing for “serious violations of law and party discipline.” The CCDI statement described Ren as a former party secretary and former chairman of Huayuan Real Estate Group, a state-owned developer, and listed his career, but gave no further details.

What is notable is that the website of the Beijing branch of the CCDI, not the national CCDI, announced Ren’s investigation. Chinese authorities want to keep this case low profile within the censored environment of mainland China, Ching said.  The most serious cases typically go through the headquarters of the CCDI, said a Hong Kong-based risk consultant. “The fact that it is the Beijing bureau, not the national body, doing it is significant.”

Given that a local district branch, not the national unit of the CCDI, is handling Ren’s case, it is potentially lenient treatment, said the risk consultant, who declined to be named.

Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said, “He is a member of the Red aristocracy, so maybe that is why he got special treatment.”

Ren has been uncontactable since mid-March. His punishment is widely believed to be due to an essay he wrote in February, which was critical of Xi and the Chinese government’s handling of the COVID-19 epidemic. The essay circulated on Chinese social media in early March. While Ren’s essay did not name Xi, it took an implicit swipe at Xi for removing the two-term limit of the president, saying, “I saw not an emperor standing there showing his new clothes, but a naked clown who insists on continuing being emperor.”

The risk consultant said, “This was a metaphorical slap across the face. If one person can slap Xi and get away with it, then others may be tempted to slap Xi. He has laid down a challenge not just to the leader but the system. The system cannot allow that level of criticism. If that challenge is allowed, then you have the beginning of the end of the autocratic system.”

“Domestic pressure against Xi is gaining a lot of ground now,” Ching said.

Such pressure began to accumulate after Xi amended the Chinese constitution in March 2018 to give himself unlimited tenure as president, and gained ground after some Chinese perceived Xi as soft on the US in the Sino-US trade war, Ching explained. Another factor against Xi is the protests in Hong Kong since the middle of last year, which helped Tsai Ing Wen get re-elected as Taiwan president in January, Ching said.

For years, Ren has been outspoken, earning the nicknames of “China’s Donald Trump” and “Big Cannon.” In 2015, he posted on the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo criticizing the Chinese Communist Youth League, which is affiliated with former Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Shortly after Xi visited the headquarters of Chinese state television CCTV on February 19, 2016, Ren posted on Weibo saying, “Since when did the people’s government become the party’s government? [Are the media] funded by party membership dues?”  

The Chinese authorities shut down Ren’s microblog accounts in late February 2016 and he was placed on one-year probation in May 2016.

In 2016, Chinese newspapers severely criticized Ren for his social media post, but for his latest offense, no newspaper has scolded him, Ching pointed out. Ren’s investigation received little mention in Chinese state media. One exception was a factual report in the Global Times, a nationalistic Chinese newspaper, on April 7.

“The lenient treatment of Ren shows that Xi did not want to openly break his tacit alliance with Wang, because everyone knows Wang was instrumental in Xi's consolidation of power during his first term,” Ching said.

Since late 2012, Xi launched an anti-corruption campaign which landed many senior officials in jail, including Zhou Yongkang, China’s former top cop. Wang would not hurt Xi, because Wang needs his boss to protect him from powerful enemies likely to have been incurred in the anti-graft crackdown, the risk consultant said.

Sources have told Lam that relations between Xi and Wang are still good.

Wang lost considerable authority after resigning from the Politburo Standing Committee, the handful of the most powerful officials governing China, in October 2017. Yet in recent months, Chinese state media have shown photographs of Wang with members of the current Politburo Standing Committee including Xi at various functions, suggesting Wang remains important.

Ren’s February essay slammed Xi’s handling of COVID-19, alleging, “When the epidemic broke out, they wouldn’t dare admit it to the public without the emperor’s orders. They wouldn’t dare announce the facts, and instead criticized “rumors” to restrict the spread of the truth, resulting in the disease’s uncontrollable spread.”

Ching said, “Ren came at the right time to provide ammunition for anti-Xi campaign, whether at home or abroad.”

US politicians like Senator Ted Cruz have blamed China for the outbreak of this disease. In a tweet on April 7, US President Donald Trump tweeted, “The W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China-centric.”

Pro-Trump US media like Fox and Breitbart have been running articles and television programs which criticized China for this pandemic.

China’s Foreign Ministry has strongly rebuked US politicians for criticizing China on the pandemic. In an attempt to project China’s soft power, Beijing has been donating face masks and equipment to various countries to help them fight the disease.

“This will hurt Xi’s reputation definitely,” said Lam.