China’s jailing of an outspoken property tycoon is a warning to its elites: Stay quiet

In March, Ren Zhiqiang, then a high-profile member of the ruling Communist Party, referred to China’s president a “clown” over his handling of the coronavirus. Today, he was sentenced to spend what will likely be the rest of his life in prison.

The 69-year-old former chairman of the state-owned Huayuan property conglomerate, who became known as The Cannon” for his outspoken criticism of the Party, was convicted Sept. 22 in a Beijing court for corruption, taking bribes, misuse of public funds, and abuse of power as an employee of state-owned entities, according to court documents (link in Chinese). The court said Ren admitted to all the charges, which included the allegation that he enriching himself by around 19 million yuan ($2.8 million).

Despite the charges of financial impropriety leveled against him, many will see the verdict as the stark silencing of a prominent critic, rather than the punishment of corruption. After campaigns in recent years against critics in civil society, from lawyers to human rights defenders, the Party has honed in this year on criticism from its inner circle. Last month, Cai Xia, a former teacher at the Party’s top academy, was also expelled from the Party after her denouncement of Xi as a “mafia boss” in a recording leaked online. There is also ever greater pressure on other elite ranks of the society, including private entrepreneurs, to show loyalty to Beijing.

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